Care: 6.11

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Charlie:

For a few moments, the room was still; all eyes on Charlie; his own eyes on Mr. Grey. Outside, there was a muted roar, then a crash like glass breaking all around them.

“… You won’t shoot me,” Charlie muttered, trying his damndest to ignore the thudding in his chest. “You need a portal, and that’s either me or my mom. Good luck getting her help with me gone.”

There was a gunshot from outside.

Sebastian reoriented his revolver to point at one of Charlie’s legs.

“No dice,” he said flatly. “You can survive without kneecaps. I told you before. How well you make it out of this depends on what you bring to the table. Drink the damn potion.”

Somewhere beyond the left-most wall, something crumpled as though struck by a speeding car.

No one moved.

Mr. Grey sighed.

“Force it down his throat.”

Two of the agents to Charlie’s right began to move.

The room flashed indigo as Charlie tore a portal open onto a random patch of arctic snow, then simply tossed the potion through it. That was all he had time for before the agents reached him, his body forced against the wall; arms locked uncomfortably in behind his back.

Five seconds, he told himself. Help’s coming. Just gotta make it five more seconds.

One of the agents not currently pinning him against the wall made a dash for the open portal.

Charlie snapped it closed with a thought, at the exact same moment that Sebastian vanished from the room.

Something hit him in the stomach. His vision went white and foggy, his muscles fighting against the men holding him down in their attempts to double him over.

His focus shifted to trying to breathe.

A daze; confusion; eight or nine voices talking urgently over one another. Charlie could have sworn he heard someone shout his name. He felt something small and metal press against his skull.

Then the roof gave out.

Charlie was too out of it to see, more’s the pity, when James Toranaga’s wind-formed hand gouged a ten foot chunk out of the building’s roof, tossing it behind him like a child digging in the sand.

He heard his name, though, bellowed in his friend’s voice as if from everywhere at once.

There was another faint pop, followed by a bellow, and the deafening noise of a dozen sidearms opening up at once.

Someone bellowed. He felt heat. Someone grabbed him by the shoulder. Another pop.

The world shifted.

They were back in the kitchens; himself and a half dozen or so of the guards, all of them looking just as surprised as he was, guns raised in defense against what was now just a perfectly normal ceiling.

The hand on Charlie’s shoulder shifted to his jaw, a thumb pressing against his cheek, forcing its way between his teeth. The scorched face of Mr. Grey swam into view, eyes wide and manic.

“Nice try,” he spat, raising his free hand into Charlie’s view, the glowing bottle clenched between his fingers. “But you need to be quicker on the draw.”

Once more, he heard the distant sound as someone screamed his name. He did his best to answer, only for the lip of the bottle to be jammed between his teeth.

It tasted foul. Charlie tried to gag or fight, but the agents gathered around him simply pushed him against the wall and made him swallow.

Gulp after gulp. Bitter. Nauseating.

He tried to yell. There was no air.

Then, whatever it was began to take effect.

It felt like someone was dumping lightning in his lungs.

Even then, though, there was still more of it to drink. He threw up. They made him swallow that down too.

His eyes ached.

Another gulp.

His bones grew ice and barnacles.

Another gulp.

He could feel insects clawing at his skin; trying to pry their way loose through the half-healed incision wounds dotted about his form.

The bottle clattered to the ground.

Charlie pulled in a pained gasp of air, then let it out in a choked sob. He squeezed his eyes shut, weakly pushing at the agents with his hands even as they began to step away.

It didn’t help. His eyes still hurt. He could still see, even with the lids closed. He saw himself, cowering against the wall, his clothes slowly soaking through with vomit and faintly glowing sweat. He saw the agents surrounding him.

He saw Sebastian standing over him.

He shook his head, the movement grinding beneath his skin as though his neck was made of chalk.

He wanted to go home.

The first portal opened up beside an agent’s waist. He reached for the man’s knife.

Sebastian’s foot connected with his jaw.

He swallowed a tooth. At least it helped clear away the taste.

He let out a dazed cry, and opened another portal. Then more. Then more. Why not? He had the energy.

That was the only thing he was sure of right now; he had energy to spare.

For one moment, the whole of the facility was lit by the indigo glow of over a hundred spatial holes, every single one of them connecting back to him. His perspective opened up high in the sky above. He glimpsed the shadow of a titan wreathed in fog.

Then his head was slammed against the wall and the connections all snapped shut.

The world went fluid.

He felt fingers tangling in his hair.

“–Not for you to use, boy,” a voice said coldly in his ear. “I’ll be the pilot now.”

Then he felt a spike being driven through his mind.

He screamed. In a thousand fragments of a voice, Charlie screamed.

There was someone else inside his brain. Bigger. Stronger. Hateful.

He tried to push them out, clawed at their throat, tried to drown them in the haze behind his eyes. He was ignored.

The hand clenched against his skull tugged him painfully to his feet. Someone whispered in his ear:

“First Bermuda-”

Time stopped. The planet opened up around him; that foreign thing inside his brain forcing him to see across the length and breadth of the world. A journey of five thousand miles slammed against his mind. Then it made him comprehend.

A piece of Charlie cracked right then. His body sagged.

The portal snapped open, bigger and brighter than any he’d ever made before; wide enough for a pair of men to pass abreast.

Sebastian shifted his grip on Charlie’s now unresisting form, holding him aloft by the scruff of the neck.

In his broken state, the boy managed a single quiet groan.

“Get out of my head.”

Sebastian chuckled.

“Not yet. We’ve still got one more gateway left to build. It’s time to follow behind the Whale.”

What happened next was, quite simply, beyond description. What Charles felt as that thing pushed his powers out was a sense of distance that, to put it plainly, could not be held within a human brain.

It was infinite; simple as that. A chasm of such impossible breadth and scope that to encompass it would crush him.

He tried to fight, fevered and exhausted as he was. He tried to shy away. It didn’t help. The thing inside his mind wouldn’t let him.

Charlie no longer had the strength to scream.


Sebastian:

Mr. Grey lowered the husk of Charles Vance to the ground, and shot the agents to either side of him a careful look.

More than one of them was still gazing at the boy, power still bleeding molten indigo from his eyes. He couldn’t blame them. It was never pretty, watching someone break. Least of all a child.

“Well, go on,” he muttered. “Get yourselves through before it closes.”

For a second, no one moved.

“… Sir,” muttered Bors. “Was that necessary?”

Something crashed through the floor a few rooms away. If he could have, he’d have simply teleported them all through. But no. Forcing this thing open had spent the last of his reserves. Sebastian sighed. There wasn’t time for this.

“I told you to move,” he answered coldly. “If you’d rather burn, then feel free to stay.”

He hefted Charlie’s limp form under one arm, and began to make his way towards the portal; pearl and alabaster sands glittering invitingly beyond it. He stopped a single step shy of the aperture.

“Last chance, you lot.”

One by one, his agents stepped past him into the new world. He waited for the last of them to pass him, then turned to give their ruined fortress one last look.

That was when the far wall caved in.

A torrent of wind. A shaking in the earth. A small glowing core amidst a fog shrouded torso. He smiled.

So the Toranagas have another elemental, do they?

He stepped backwards through the portal, and raised his revolver, the tip aimed squarely at the glowing mass, even as it barrelled down towards him.

No. There are enough monsters in the world already.

He pulled the trigger.

Space bent.

Sebastian Grey had half a second to wonder how exactly he could have missed, before James Toranaga slammed into him with a frenzied scream and all the force that he could muster.

The next thing Sebastian knew, he was on his back, sun dappled sand caked about his shoulders; the whole of his body filled with a low, aching sort of pain. He heard yelling, the crack of attack spells being launched into the open sky.

He forced his eyes open, swung his gaze to either side, and caught a flurry of disturbed sand and water as the young elemental fled towards the horizon, their only portal maker now clutched firmly in his grip.

With a sense of dawning horror, he turned back towards the portal, just in time to watch it snapping shut.

… Right.


James:

The new world was beautiful; there was no denying that. It felt… Tropical wasn’t quite the word for it. If it had been tropical, the thick-grouped trees running the length of the peninsula towards the greater archipelago would have been shorter, their branches and leaves all clustered at the tops like the palm trees of Hawaii or L.A., as opposed to the tall, red-boughed conifers that lined this place, looking more at home in a winter shrouded wood than on the shores of some dozy coastline.

A few dozen feet from the shore, the thick forest growth gave way to pristine, faintly salt encrusted sand, sparkling faintly under the wan light of three gently glowing moons, each hanging large and heavy in the sky.

It was this shore on which James sat, his feet just barely touching the point at which the sands gave way to sea; warm ocean ripples tickling at his toes. Beyond those waters, an uncountable mass of sea life swam and thrived in the space between this island and the next, some of them bringing forth their own brief bouts of luminescence, deep blues and reds and electrical greens dancing through the water like lanterns in ballet.

“It’s so pretty here,” he said quietly, gazing at a thousand fish that none before him had ever even thought to name. “The air’s so clean. It’s like I’m breathing life.” He made an aborted attempt to snicker at himself, took a breath, and turned his eyes towards the sky. He sniffed.

“… I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars at once.” He tried to smile as he reached for Charlie’s hand beside him. The other boy didn’t resist as he tangled their fingers together.

Charlie didn’t move at all.

James gave his hand a squeeze.

“The sky’s so bright, you know?” he mumbled, half-failing to hide a sniffle, the first tears building in his eyes even as he tried to hold them back. “The sand’s so soft.”

That was as far as he got before the tears began to fall. His voice caught.

“I wish I could share it with you, dude.”

Charlie didn’t move.

The taller boy just lay at James’ side, gazing up at the starry sky with eyes that hadn’t blinked in hours; nought but the slight rise and fall of his chest giving any real sign of life.

“Please wake up.”

James gave the other boy a shake, the tears trickling slowly down his cheeks.

Charlie didn’t move.

James’ next attempt was less than a whisper.

“Please.”

No response.

“Please don’t leave me alone.”

The lunar trio shone its light upon the shore throughout the night, the sparkling sands touched by the lightest trace of a warming summer breeze.


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Care: 6.10

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Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never been a particularly subtle man. It wasn’t something that had ever truly been expected, nor, indeed, desired of him. Not even in his youth. He had been taught the opposite, in fact.

He was fire. What use did fire have for restraint?

It had taken centuries for the boy that he had been to address the severity of that mistake; instilling, over time, a passable head for tactics within himself.

Even now, however, subtlety didn’t come naturally to him.

The portal led the trio out into a snowfield, a half-mile or so from their target, and a few feet deep in the lightly falling snow. Laying eyes on the facility took time, half buried by the snowfall as it was; the search aided only somewhat by the slowly building glow emanating from the compound’s upper floors.

When the Egyptian set his gaze upon it, one arm rising to point it out, Hideyoshi simply sniffed. He extended a tendril of his power towards the place, and felt a flicker.

“Shielded,” he murmured. “I’ll deal with it.”

His companions took a few steps back towards the portal at that, their forms cutting waist-deep trenches in the powder, faint trails of lightning-light dancing around them as they first strengthened, then doubled down on their shields.

For his part, Hideyoshi’s feet left no imprint on the ground. Why walk when he had yet to recover most of the feeling in his legs? The man set his gaze upon the place. Then, he began to drift slowly upward.

Below him, his wife quietly winced. He smiled.

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never gotten the hang of subtlety.


For the few men assigned to remain on guard of the facility’s outer wall as the ritual entered its final stages, the first wave was difficult to parse as an attack.

It was closer to the birth of a star.

For the man at the gate-house, there was just enough time to catch sight of a distant speck of color in the sky. Then some buried primate instinct slammed his eyes closed before the light could finish scorching through his retinas.

The attack wasn’t something to be measured in seconds. More like frames; each one a photo in a sequence.

For the first microsecond, Hideyoshi simply hung there in the sky, the lie of that ancient form shucked from his skin. His flaming figure was lithe now; slender, and small. Not quite a child, yet eternally touched by youth.

Had they been able to look on him without being rendered blind, the defenders might have taken him for an angel.

Then came the heat.

It wasn’t flame yet. Fire takes time to catch, and all of this was over in an instant. The heat pressed out from the elemental like a wave, washing the cold from the winter air with the ease of a passing thought.

The heat permeated.

In the next frame, the air around the compound seemed to ripple, catching the light of Hideyoshi’s flame and the distant sun as though the entire building was held within a snowglobe. For its part, the surrounding snowfield had become a lake, sitting like a miracle on flat land as the powder was heated from below freezing to well above boiling.

In the frame after that came pressure; a few hundred thousand tonnes of water abruptly realizing that it needed to be a gas.

To call it an explosion would have been to undersell it. The shockwave was such that, for perhaps a tenth of a second, the landscape was held in vacuum; the weight of the sky itself not quite heavy enough to pierce it.

For the defenders in their fort, however, the results were a mite less cataclysmic. The air about the building cracked, the thunderclap of the explosion rolling over it and sending fissures radiating through the air like lightning caught in glass. Behind that injured barrier, the walls stood firm, even if the very shaking of the ground was enough to shatter every window on the compound’s upper floor.

It almost surprised him when a door burst open on the building’s roof, a single figure darting out towards the building’s edge. Strange. Hideyoshi hadn’t felt any particular heat behind that door, or from anywhere else within the building’s walls, for that matter. Perhaps it was the barrier, partially shrouding the place from his new form’s senses. He uttered a charm to reassert his human eyesight, and the image came through clearer.

The figure had a rifle in hand, eyes covered by dark, heavy lidded goggles.

Hideyoshi chuckled. At least the enemy adapted fast.

The sniper readied the weapon, took aim, and made the shot.

Their aim was perfect. Hideyoshi didn’t move, simply intensifying the wall of heat radiating from his unencumbered form. The bullet was reduced to vapor before it even reached him.

Cute.

Almost lazily, Hideyoshi raised an arm.

It felt so strange, being in this body again. He’d grown used to the feigned stoop of his older self. The slight croak of his voice, the inevitable stiffness in his joints.

The pretense of infirmity necessitated such things.

He’d forgotten what it was like to be this small: the slender god; the dancing sprite at the heart of the inferno.

His movements felt so fluid now.

He flicked a wrist, and a tongue of flame leapt across the gap between himself and the fortification, lashing at the barrier with such might that the air itself thrummed with the force of the blow. The cracks grew; his flame tearing through their wall like claws through an eggshell.

The barrier flickered. He readied another blow.

A faint crack, then a new figure popped into existence on the rooftop; suit-clad, straight-backed, and elderly. The figure was looking right at him, his eyes unprotected.

The light didn’t even make him flinch.

Hideyoshi struck again, the half-mile cord of flame splitting into a hundred smaller skeins to dance in spark and ember on the enemy’s defences.

It was at that point that the steam made by Hideyoshi’s first assault began to return itself to earth; the superheated vapor having risen up, then rapidly cooled itself in the still arctic air beyond the upper bounds of his domain. It sank back down upon them now as fog, light, at first, but building; soon to cover all below in a densely clouded haze.

The man spoke then, and Hideyoshi knew that he was meant to hear, for the words carried, despite the breadth of the gap between them.

“This is your real face, elemental,” he said coldly, the words quiet, despite their clarity. “Not some old wise man, but a monster out of books and children’s tales. The kind of demon that heroes used to hunt; capable of nothing more than holding our species back.” If his eyes had still been physical things at that moment, Hideyoshi would have rolled them. He didn’t care. He drew his tendrils back for yet another strike. Then, the man continued: “That’s why things like you deserve to die.”

There was another quiet crack, then a much louder one as, for the briefest moment, the man hung in the air just a few feet to Hideyoshi’s right, his shield already peeling away layer by layer from just the ambient heat of being so close to the elemental’s form.

The man had a revolver aimed at Hideyoshi’s head.

He pulled the trigger.

What followed bore about the same relation to a gunshot as lightning does to a spark. Instead of the usual flash of light and harmless spray of lead, his form was sent hurtling through the sky by a bolt of raw force that left a trail of silver light hanging in the air behind it. His shield split, his firelight thrown into disarray by the refraction all around him.

Enchanted bullets. Powerful ones.

Hideyoshi responded quicker than a thought, spinning in the air like a top, his hundred skeins dancing towards his foe like a latticework of death.

The gunman was already gone.

His expanded senses were enough to tell him of the change in heat on the ground below that marked the gunner’s relocation. That, in turn, was enough to allow him the very narrowest of dodges as the second round cleaved the sky in two like a lance of solid starlight.

He brought his force to bear on the ground below, just in time for his enemy to vanish once again. He let out a growl, the sound strangely musical now that it lacked the imperfections of age, and bore the gunner’s third shot directly on his shield. He didn’t try to dodge. His focus was on other matters. He prepped a spell.

He swung to face his foe again, and once again, the man was gone.

No room for error here. Another hit would be the death of him.

At the edge of the forest, the gunner reappeared, weapon already raised, thumb to the hammer.

Hideyoshi teleported.

No sooner had the fourth shot left his opponent’s gun than the elemental re-emerged. He was at ground level now, his enemy less than a foot away.

The air parched.

The gunner flinched; his seemingly indomitable focus cracking for but a second as his shield faded to a shred and his skin slowly but surely began to burn.

Hideyoshi reached a slender arm towards the revolver, one finger stretching out, ready to simply melt the barrel down the middle.

The gunner vanished.

This time, Hideyoshi didn’t feel him reappear; his exit point either well beyond the elemental’s range, or obscured by whatever enchantments lined the compound’s walls. He huffed.

Off to lick his wounds. Weak.


Charlie:

“So your grandad’s the fire dude?” Charlie asked, trying simultaneously to both peer out of his cell’s small window and stay as far away from it as the boundaries of the room would allow. “He’s freaking terrifying.”

On the other end of the line, James snickered.

“He’s not that bad,” he admonished. “He’s my grandpa. He just gets kind of intense when he’s doing good guy stuff.”

“Dude. He made the floor explode.”

Whatever James’ answer was, the loud crack as the charred form of Sebastian Grey materialized in the middle of the room was enough to drown it out.

Charlie flinched, moving reflexively to stow his borrowed phone. Not fast enough.

“… So you’re the reason they found us,” the older man muttered, his voice cold. “You’ll pay for that.”

“Wait,” crackled James’ voice, his tone alarmed. “Who-”

The sounds died as Sebastian’s fingers wrenched the phone from Charlie’s grip, his gun hand closing like a vice on the boy’s shoulder.

Sebastian’s skin was burned.

He raised the phone to his mouth, and uttered one sharp phrase into the mouthpiece:

“You can have him back when I’m done with him. Not before.”

With that, he tossed the phone aside, and the world popped out of place before Charlie’s eyes.

In the next second, the two were standing in a medical bay; dozens of people, both vertical and horizontal, spaced around it. Most of the conscious ones were positioned by the doors, weapons at the ready.

There was something glowing on the floor.

“Um,” was all Charlie had time to say before Sebastian shoved him back against the wall, and strode towards the glowing mass in the centre of the room.

“You threw the wrench into this plan, Charles,” he said, quiet fury etched into every word as he picked whatever it was up off the floor. “And I will make sure that you’re the one to fix it.”

He tossed the thing to Charlie. Charlie caught it.

It was a water bottle, filled to the brim with a glowing, oddly pearlescent fluid.

Sebastian leveled his revolver at Charlie’s chest.

“Drink it.”


Hideyoshi:

A glance towards the forest, and the fires stilled as quick as they had started. The light and heat around him dimmed to that of a campfire; barely visible in the fog. No point in leaving the landscape scarred. No doubt it was his light that had allowed the gunner such an easy target.

“Interesting enemy you’ve got there,” murmured Tsuru’s voice. He didn’t bother looking up. He could feel her presence drifting toward him through the mist; still a few dozen feet away, Binyamin not far behind her. “Precision teleporter. It’s an admirable skill, to achieve so many in succession like that.”

Hideyoshi grunted, absentmindedly pumping fresh energy into his wards.

“Weak shields, though,” he muttered. “I didn’t even have to hit him to burn them out. I doubt he’ll be capable of much once he’s out of ammunition.”

His wife chuckled.

“Ah, Yoshi,” she murmured, her voice shifting to archaic Japanese to hide the words from their companion. “I’d forgotten your voice could sound so young.”

Hideyoshi gave her a smile.

“You should do the same from time to time. The mind forgets how much more easily the body moved in youth. I find it helps to be reminded.”

“I will, dear,” she replied, crossing the last of the distance between them and resting her hand on his head. “Just as soon as Bex learns the truth. No use pretending to be mortal after that.” She tussled the flames that presently constituted his hair, her shield flickering almost imperceptibly. “I think I’ll wait it out until then.”

Hideyoshi shook his head.

“Twelve years in the body of a crone,” he muttered. “Your patience astounds me, love.”

With that, the moment broke. His words returned to english.

“The two of you finish breaking down that barrier. Get the hostages out while I deal with the gu-”

That was as far as Hideyoshi got before, with a roar of pure, panicked rage, James Toranaga slammed his titan form into the compound’s shield with all the force that he could muster.

The barrier shattered.

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Care: 6.9

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Charlie:

Charles Vance had spent a long few days unsure of what to think. Stuck alone in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and the passing attention of his wardens to distract him. Stress was too small a word for it.

He was angry, he was scared, he was tired, and his skin still itched beneath the bandages from where the base’s surgeons had laid their scalpels about his form, only barely possessing the decency to put him under first.

Most importantly of all, however, was this: for almost a week, Charles Vance had not known if his mother had survived the shot that brought her down. So when James Toranaga called to bring her in, it was almost enough to bring the boy to tears.

Almost.

“Wait, wait,” he asked, his prior train of thought brought to a sudden halt. “My mom’s there? She’s okay? Tell me she’s okay!”

“What?” James asked, his voice sounding just as frazzled as Charlie felt. “O-oh. Yeah. She’s fine. She’s been freaking the heck out about finding you, but she’s fine. My grandma’s gonna go and-” There was a muffled pop on the other end of the line. “-Just went to go get her.”

There were other voices speaking on James’ side of the phone; low voices growling words that Charlie couldn’t make out; James himself snapping angrily in retort. Charlie wasn’t paying attention. The relief was too intense. He was shaking. His breaths becoming rather shallow. He lowered the phone from his ear, and brought his forearm up against his eyes.

He wasn’t getting rid of tears. Of course not. Just scratching an itch. Why would he be crying? Crying would be a dumb thing to do right now.

“Okay,” he muttered, refusing to allow himself a sniffle. “She’s okay. Mom’s okay. Good. That’s good.”

A second or two passed like that, the argument on the other end of the phone line quietly raging as he tried to pull himself together. Then Twenty Three flicked him in the temple.

He glanced at her, confused; his thoughts slowed.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes darting towards the empty hallway as she spoke. “We’ve gotta get this done. You can cry about it later.”

It took the words half a second or so to sink in; longer still for Charlie to force the dazed fog from his mind. She was right. They didn’t have time for this. He shook himself.

“I wasn’t crying,” he muttered, returning the phone to his ear. “James. I need to speak to someone strong. We need help over here. We’re stuck, and we need someone tough to get us out. Is your dad around? Or your grandpa?”

The response wasn’t quite what Charlie had expected.

“Oh, not you too!” James snapped. “You don’t get to kick me out of this. I’m not handing off the phone, and I am not waiting in the hallway! I’m part of this!” Another muffled growl from the end of the line. James gave his best approximation of a swear. “Freaking fine! Look, I’m putting you on speakerphone. My grandad’s here. He’s super strong. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a rustling noise, then the muffled voices on James’ side grew louder; each of them distinct.

One of them was speaking now; a male voice that Charlie vaguely recognized as James’ grandpa.

“I don’t care if you’re attracted to this boy, James. You’re not allowed to dictate who he talks to. That’s exactly the kind of rash decision making that proves you shouldn’t-”

“Jiji!” James snapped, his voice pitching rapidly towards a squeak. “He can hear you!”

Charlie had roughly half a second to process the knowledge that his best friend liked him before the older man continued.

“He can hear me? Good. Charlie. I need you to tell me everything you can. What’s your situation like. Can you see any landmarks. Are there any other captives with you?”

Charlie pushed the uncomfortable thought of James’ romantic inclinations away, and focused on the task at hand. A few months of burgeoning sexual awareness had taught Charlie that he was definitely into girls, but that was a conversation better saved for later.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “There’s a bunch of other prisoners in here too, but they’re all in their own cells. I haven’t got to talk to any of them yet. As for landmarks, there’s mountains outside the window, and it’s snowed most days since I got here-”

That was as far as he got before Twenty Three wrenched the phone from his hand and spoke into the mouthpiece, her tone curt:

“You’re trying to figure out where we are,” she said. “I’ll save you some time. We’re in Sweden. The facility is on the edge of a forest, about two miles east of Östra Kjolsjön’s southern tip. You can see Åreskutan through the window, so the cell block has to be on the south side of the complex.” With that, she pressed the phone back into Charlie’s hands. “First thing I did when I was planning this was track down a map.” She stepped towards the doorway. “Keep talking. I’m going to get a fresh disguise.”

Charlie returned the phone to his ear just in time to make out a question from a voice he didn’t recognize; male and faintly middle-eastern.

“Who was that?” the stranger asked. “Are there people with you? Can you trust them?”

“Yeah-” Charlie started, before cutting himself off. “I mean, I think so. I think she’s the one that Caleb guy was trying to save. She said she’d try and get me out.”

A distant grunt.

“Caleb will be thrilled,” Hideyoshi muttered. “And how’s the rescue progressing?”

“It’s, uh,” Charlie weighed up what he knew about the situation thus far in his head. “Not great.” He crossed the room to peak out through the doorway. He spotted Twenty Three almost immediately, an unconscious body he recognized as the guard who, ten minutes ago, had been patrolling the cell-block slung about her shoulder. “She’s taken out a bunch of guards, but they put a tracking chip inside me, so we can’t sneak away unless someone can punch a hole.”

There was a loud crunching noise from somewhere up above. Both Charlie and Twenty Three looked towards the ceiling.

“… And the roof just started glowing,” he added lamely. “No idea what that’s about.”

The sudden tide of questions that comment prompted was drowned out by Twenty Three’s response. Across the hallway, the young woman went from double speed to triple. She lugged the unconscious guard down the hall until she reached the first doorway with a simple handle instead of a secure lock, and quite simply kicked it open.

“Tell em I’m gonna get you out by car!” She shouted. “I need em to make some noise and make sure no one has a chance to follow us!”

Charlie nodded, returning his attention to the phone just in time for the flow of questions to suddenly come to a stop.

There was a quiet pop. Then silence.

“… Your mom’s here,” said James.

Charlie took a breath.

Keep it together.

“Hi, Mom.”

He was proud of that. His voice only caught a little.

No response. Just the muttered sounds of Hideyoshi relaying the situation to the new arrivals.

Then, in a voice of pure fact, Charlie’s mother spoke.

“Charlie,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there. We’re having enchilada wraps for dinner, and none of this is ever getting close to you again. You hear me?”

Charlie sniffed.

“… Yeah. Ok.”

When Jacqueline Vance spoke again, the words were not directed at her son.

“I’ll have a portal open in two minutes. Have a plan ready by then, or I’m leaving you behind.”

The middle-eastern voice answered first.

“I haven’t cast a spell in almost a day. I’m at full power.”

“Me as well,” Tsuru agreed. “Minus a couple of teleports. I don’t think raw force should be an issue. The only concern is the woman they’ve got in charge.”

The stranger started to reply, before Hideyoshi cut him off.

“You leave their leadership to me,” he said. “I have a score to settle with the woman who broke my spine.”

Charlie opened his mouth, but Tsuru spoke before he could.

“Absolutely not,” she said, her tone firm. “You are to stay in the rear in case we need artillery. I am not letting you fight her with an injury.”

Hideyoshi started to reply. This time, it was Charlie’s turn to interrupt.

“Do you mean the woman who teleported me?” he asked. “Cuz she’s dead. Twenty Three killed her the moment we got here.”

A moment’s quiet.

“How sure are you?” Tsuru asked.

“Pretty sure.” Charlie shrugged. “She got stabbed like, seven times cuz Twenty Three had a meltdown.” There was something deeply wrong, Charlie thought, about being able to say those words in so matter-of-fact a manner. “… I think I might need therapy.”

A chuckle.

“Right,” Tsuru resumed. “Hideyoshi will take the lead, then. Binyamin and I can stay in reserve.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet mutter something along the lines of: “Trust your damned husband, woman.”

Charlie cleared his throat.

“Uh. Twenty Three says she’s gonna get me to a car. She needs you to hold em off while we-”

“Stay exactly where you are,” came Hideyoshi’s answer. “You’re in the southern cell-block. As long as I know that’s where you are, I can make sure you don’t get hit.”

Charlie glanced towards the ceiling.

“The roof’s still glowing.”

“That just means we have to hurry.”

A few ever tenser moments later, Jacqueline announced the portal ready, and Hideyoshi barked the order to advance, leaving Charlie presumably alone with James. The silence that followed then held a very different kind of tension.

“… Still there?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” James replied. “Me and your mom. She’s holding the portal open.”

“Right.” Charlie contemplated his life for a second, then took a breath. “So,” he tried. “I’m uh. I’m straight-”

“Right,” came James’ overly hastened reply. “Sure. Cool. Of course you are. Great.”

Another awkward moment’s quiet, then Charlie started laughing.

“Such, a freaking, dork.”

“… Shut up.”

“Never.”

In the quiet that followed, the elemental began laying down his siege.

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Care: 6.8

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James:

Just as he had been instructed, James Toranaga took a slow breath. He filled his lungs, held for a moment, then let it out. He did so again. And again. And again.

The movies had been wrong. Wizard training sucked.

He opened his eyes.

“How long am I supposed to keep doing this?”

“As long as it takes to find peace within your mind,” said the Egyptian. “If you want to learn a spell, first, you must open your spellbook. The spellbook will not open until you are truly calm.”

James glared at him, struck, not for the first time, at how young the man looked. For someone who had been introduced to him as ‘the founding father of modern middle-eastern wizardry’, Binyamin al-Nisillii certainly didn’t seem the part. The man looked barely older than James’ dad.

“I am calm,” he replied, annoyed.

Casper snickered. James ignored him. The older boy was already putting his new shield spell through its paces, walking slow laps around the room with the barrier layered over his skin like a sheet of broken glass. With every movement of his form beneath the surface, the glass would crack a little further, fracturing itself to stay in line with him, only to slowly stitch back together when he stilled.

Traitor.

“Not calm enough,” said Binyamin. “You need to go beyond the surface level. You need to keep going until there is emptiness inside your soul.”

“… Nirvana.” James muttered. “You’re telling me I have to find freaking Nirvana before I get to be a mage?” Then, a more pressing grievance struck him. “You’re telling me this doofus-” he pointed at Casper. “-made it to Nirvana?”

Casper stuck out his tongue.

“It’s not Nirvana,” replied his grandmother flatly from her position by the wall, her eyes closed. “Don’t insult the philosophy so lightly. There is a big difference between achieving any of the buddhist paths and learning to clear your mind for a few seconds at a time.”

“Exactly,” Hideyoshi agreed. “Unlike Nirvana, this can actually be achieved.”

“Not this again,” Tsuru groaned, shaking her head against the wall.

“You don’t believe in Nirvana?” the Egyptian asked, cocking his head slightly to one side. “Why?”

Hideyoshi chuckled, the sound a tad bitter. 

“Why don’t I belie-”

“Don’t start,” Tsuru growled. “I don’t care if you’re on painkillers. I will fight you if we get into this again.”

At that, the room fell into an awkward sort of quiet.

James reluctantly closed his eyes once more. He took another breath. Casper started humming the baseline to Teen Spirit. James’ cheeks twitched.

So it continued for a while, James sitting in a quiet broken only by the continued crackling of Casper’s shield.

It was… aggravating wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and disappointing. It felt like trying to find a direction in the dark. Couldn’t his supposed teachers be a little bit more helpful?

In the end, he lasted half an hour before he next opened up his eyes.

“Okay, look,” he muttered. “Can you guys run this by me one more time, cuz I don’t know what I’m s’posed to aim for. What does calm even mean? I’m chill, right?”

Silence.

He looked around the room, taking in the contemplative look on the Egyptian’s face, and the careful neutrality of his grandparents.

It was Casper who responded first.

“It means figuring out your baggage, I guess,” he muttered. “All your crap. The stuff in your head that you don’t let yourself think about too much because of how it makes you feel.”

Casper fell silent for a moment, clearly in thought. James noted, with a touch of bemusement, that all of the adults were looking to the other boy now, each of them surprised.

“All that buried stuff,” Casper continued. “It makes- I dunno. Smoke, I guess. Bits of anger or whatever that don’t go away because you’re too busy trying to ignore them.” He heaved a sigh. “For me, it meant facing up to how angry I was with Mom and Dad, because I couldn’t get my head empty enough to do it with them pissing me off in the background.” He gave James a steady look. “For you, it’s probably gonna mean looking at how you feel about the rape, and all the stuff with me and Caleb.” A half second’s hesitation. “And being gay.”

“… Ok,” James said quietly. “Then what? What am I meant to do with that?”

“I dunno,” Casper made a non-committal gesture with his hands. “Just let it burn itself out for a couple minutes so you don’t have so much background noise.”

“Huh,” Tsuru grunted. “So Freja trained you, did she?”

Casper groaned.

“Okay. First Father, now you. How does everyone know who my secret magic teacher is?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“She helped me on a job a few decades back. She’s a good enchanter. And she’s the only person in New York who teaches the meditations that way.” She chuckled. “It’s not exactly popular. Most people don’t even know where half their crap is buried, let alone being willing to dig it up again.”

“That sounds like a lot,” James muttered. “Do I have to?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, but the Egyptian cut him off.

“No,” he said, a trace of reassurance to his tone. “Doing the meditations that way is rare, as your grandmother says, and unfortunately, the way that works best for one person may not work so well for others. After all, if it were consistent enough to be taught the same way to everyone, we would have put it in the school system. As it stands, all a teacher can really do is tell their students how they managed it, and hope they can find the path themselves.” He shrugged. “The process takes time, and is highly individualized.”

“So how long’d it take you?” James asked. 

“Three weeks,” came the reply. “Give or take a day.”

James looked to his grandmother. She smiled.

“Four days,” she said, her tone slightly smug.

James turned to Hideyoshi. The old man shot his wife a glare.

“… Winter,” he admitted.

James’ heart sank like a rock. He turned to Casper. The other boy was looking to the older mages, apparently confused.

“And you?” James asked.

Casper shrugged.

“Like, an hour or two, I think? I didn’t have a phone on me.”

“Liar,” Tsuru muttered. “How?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess I did kinda cheat.”

“You can’t cheat,” Tsuru snapped. “It’s magic. The rules are fixed. You can’t-” She cut the words off, and forced herself to take a breath. “I’m not sure I like you, Casper.”

James just shook his head. None of this was helping. He put his face against his hands, let out a small groan, and shook himself.

Don’t waste time getting angry. Just get it done.

He took a breath, and closed his eyes.

Right.

Casper had gotten his meditations done the quickest. James would try his way first.

Okay. Just face up to all my crud. Can do.

He took another deep, steadying breath, and started to dig inside his head.

Okay. Obvious stuff first. I was raped.

He spent a few moments looking at that knowledge inside himself. It felt… awkward.

Okay. Now what? Am I supposed to think super hard about it, or what? Casper said just let the emotions burn out for a while. Are there emotions there? I mean. It hurts to think about, I guess.

Some small part of him snickered.

Dude, you had nightmares about it for weeks. You still freak out about it sometimes. That’s more than just ‘I guess it hurts.’

James scowled.

Okay, fine. It hurts, but I’m stronger now, right? I saved Tasha. I beat up Father. He’s like, the final boss of pedos. I bet no one could even touch me if I didn’t want em to.

Somewhere inside him, his inner critic rolled his eyes.

Then why are you scared of liking guys?

James didn’t flinch. It was more frustrating at that point than anything else.

Cuz it hurt. Duh.

Doesn’t mean it has to hurt with someone else.

James rolled his eyes for real this time.

It’s butt stuff. It’s always gonna hurt.

… You sure about that?

“Yeah,” James groaned. “Pretty sure.”

I mean, grown ups seem to like it. Maybe you should ask someon-

I’m not asking anyone. Ever.

… Yeah. Fair enough.

“You doing okay?” Casper asked. “You keep talking to yourself.”

“Shut up,” James muttered, not opening his eyes. “My inner me’s being a dork.”

I am not.

Yes you are.

James couldn’t help smiling a bit at that. Then, he sighed.

Besides. It’s not like I even know for sure I’m gay.

The inner James shook his head.

You’re pretty gay, dude.

Since when?

Inner James smiled.

Since Charlie.

… Shut up.

Remember when you were playing cards? His other self asked. You totally wanted to smooch him.

James went slightly red.

Did not.

His inner self was laughing now.

Then there was that time you freaked out about Caleb’s abs and he totally noticed.

His cheeks began to burn.

He didn’t see that, he defended. I played it cool.

His inner self laughed even harder.

Who’s next? it asked. You gonna have a thing for Casper too? Cuz I’m pretty sure he’s into Father.

Whatever humor James had been nursing inside his soul died at that. His inner argument went still. He opened his eyes.

“This isn’t gonna work,” he muttered, not sure if the realization made him frustrated, or simply sad. “Getting hurt. Liking boys. I can deal with that stuff all day long, but I’m still not gonna be calm.” He gave Casper a look; not quite judging, but almost. “All of that’s just small potatoes, cuz right now, my best friend’s been kidnapped, and my other best friend’s been hanging out with Father. I don’t know how to let that stuff go.”

Casper held his gaze for a time, then shook his head, and sighed.

“You don’t need to worry about me so much, you know? I’m not dumb. I can take care of myself.” He chuckled. “I’ve made it work so far, haven’t I?”

“It’s Father,” James replied flatly. “Either he’s gonna hurt you, or he’s just gonna take you away. I’m never gonna be okay with that.”

Casper sighed.

“Fine. Whatever,” he muttered. He shot a glance at Tsuru. “I’m going outside. It’s too cramped to practice moving my shield around in here. I can still use magic as long as I stay in this part of the hospital, right?” 

Tsuru nodded.

Casper turned to leave. On his way out, he gave a parting comment.

“A little trust’d be cool, James.”

James groaned.

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” he replied. If Casper heard the words at all, he ignored them. James raised his voice. “It’s the magic super molester.” Casper definitely ignored him on that one.

James shook his head.

“Okay, so Casper’s way isn’t gonna work. What next?”

For a moment, the grown ups looked between themselves; then the Egyptian spoke.

“I can guide you through my own approach, if you would like.”

“Sure.” James nodded. He took one more glance at Casper’s form retreating down the hall, then slammed the door with a gust of wind. “I’m all ears.”

Binyamin nodded.

“Alright. Well, to begin with, you should try and clear your mind as much as you can the normal way. I find it helps to focus on a memory that soothes me.”

James nodded, closed his eyes again, and took a breath.

He focused.

Something soothing. Ok. Easy. How it felt to be flying above New York.

He found the memory, placed it in the forefront within his brain, and tried to remind himself of the feelings it had held. The wind against his skin. The lightness in his chest. The thousands of window lights sparkling below him as he breathed the fresh night air.

In spite of everything, the image made him smile.

“Okay,” he murmured. “Found it.”

“Well done,” replied the Eyptian. “Now then; my path is very different from the one your friend used. Casper’s method was internal. He focused on putting the inside of his own mind to order. My path does the opposite, in a way. You are going to start with yourself. Begin by determining who you think you are, and then building out to the things around you.”

James raised an eyebrow at that.

“Okay, sure. How do I do that?”

A quiet chuckle.

“Well, first, you must begin to know yourself. I learned to do it by connecting things with music. Look inside yourself. Find all of the things that make up the boy called James Toranaga. All of the loves, the hates; the ambitions that make you who you are. Then start stripping them away, layer by layer, until you find a piece that cannot be removed. Something that you could not take out of yourself without becoming someone else. Hold onto that piece. Find the others. Do not stop until you’ve found the aspects at your core.”

James nodded. He understood… He was pretty sure he did, at least. He looked at himself; tried to visualize it, a bundle of layered ideas sitting there like a big ball of rubber bands.

Ok. So far, so good.

He looked at the first rubber band; the memory of a conversation with his dad.

“Okay, fine. So it’s not Superman anymore. So what do you want to be when you grow up, then?”

A broad grin, then his own reply.

“Lead singer of Pentatonix.”

James chuckled at that, then shook himself.

It wasn’t a necessary memory. He peeled it off and let the idea drift into the background of his mind. He kept going.

The first time he got to show off knowing Japanese. Peeled away. Flying above the forests of New Jersey. Another grin, before it too was peeled away.

The rape.

In his current mindset, the memory was so forceful as to make him flinch; his jaw clenching uncomfortably as he remembered his head being pressed against the sink; the unsettlingly vivid memory of pain.

He stepped away, and focused on the feeling of the sky. The city lights shining brightly down below.

Why’d I have to get to this one first?

He brought himself back to calm, and once more approached the memory. Almost reluctantly, he tried to pull that layer free.

A moment’s resistance, and then the memory came away.

There was a surprising rush of relief at that. He smiled.

Guess the asshole’s not a part of me. Good to know.

It went on like that for a while. Digging through memory after memory. The moment when he learned about his powers. His first day at school. The first time he got to hold Bex; that was the first one that didn’t peel away.

He kept going.

When he was finally done, he gave his teacher a slow nod, his eyes still closed.

“… I think I got it. What now?”

“Simple,” Binyamin replied. “Search your memory. Find a song. Something that fits with the bundle of ideas that make you who you are. For me, it was a string piece I heard in the home of a friend in 1692. For you, it could be any-”

“Uptown Funk,” said James.

There was silence for a moment. James thought he heard his grandfather hide a laugh.

“You’re sure?” the Egyptian asked, his voice still perfectly calm.

“Totally,” James replied.

“Alright,” his teacher murmured. “That works perfectly fine. Now, you’re going to need to-”

James jumped slightly when his phone rang. 

“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, one eye flicking open as he fumbled in his pocket. “Shoulda turned it off.”

“It’s fine.”

James pulled out his phone, and checked the screen.

He didn’t recognize the number.

He sighed.

This better not be a scam.

He accepted the call, and put the phone against his ear.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Oh, thank fuck, you answered,” said a familiar voice. “James. It’s Charlie. Look, I need you to listen really good, okay? We don’t have a lot of time.”

James’ calm broke on the moment. He lowered the phone, opened his eyes, and looked his grandmother in the eye.

“Get Charlie’s mom here,” he said. “Get her here right freaking now!”

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Care: 6.7

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Agent Sloan:

Sloan hated the night shift. It had always been a chore, even when they had the last generation of assets being grown and trained here, some of them more prone to restlessness than others. That had been almost a decade ago, though; before his age had started catching up with him. He didn’t relish the long nights. Nor the ache in his knees and back that invariably followed.

At least the drive was pleasant. He glanced out of his car’s side window, admiring the snowscape, dotted by hills, distant mountains, and patches of determined shrubs. He found it soothing.

Eyes back on the main road, he caught what he could have sworn to be a figure in the distant gloom. He squinted, tapped a thumb against a lever to switch from the car’s usual headlights to the floodlights, and caught a petite figure, arms waving in the air above their head.

Sloan raised an eyebrow. Quite far afield of a place to be stranded. The nearest town was a kilometre or two behind him on the road. Drawing closer, the figure became easier to identify, picked out a little clearer in the gloom.

A young woman, wrapped up warm against the chill. He drew his car up alongside her and came to a stop. He rolled down his window.

“Can I help you, miss?” he asked. “You seem lost.”

“Oh my gosh,” the girl replied, a heavy Bostonian accent undercut by a sniffle. “You stopped. Thank you. Yeah, I, um-” she gestured behind herself into the snowfield. “I-I had an accident. I was trying out one of those-” another sniffle. “Those snowmobile rentals. But I think I hit a rock or ran out of fuel or something because it won’t start up again. I don’t think I can make it back to the resort and it’s dark and I’m cold and-”

Sloan had raised three children to adulthood. He liked to think he had learned a thing or two from the experience. He knew, for example, what it looked like when one of them was building towards tears. He raised a hand.

“Now now, miss. Don’t you worry. I have some spare fuel in the back. We’ll sort you out.”

Another sniffle.

“Thanks.”

Sloan gave a wry smile. Damned tourists. At least this one was pretty.

He pulled a torch from his glove box, then pushed open the car door, climbed out of his car, and began crunching his way through the snow around his car.

“You from the States?” he asked, fumbling with his keys in the cold. “I have a daughter there. Works as a loan co-ordi-”

The first sharp palm blow against his larynx was enough to stop him talking. The second was likely just for flavor. He stumbled backwards, gagging for air. Then his instincts kicked in. He brought forth a shield. He swung the torch around himself, trying to catch a glimpse of his attacker.

The next strike caught him in the jaw. Not unarmed, this time. This was something heavier. Something metal. His shield bore the blow with only a minor complaint. The second one, not so much. He bit his tongue.

Sloan threw his torch aside, opting now for blind force. He swung wild and wide, great gouts of flame bursting madly into the world from his hands. He had no idea if he managed to land a hit. It didn’t matter. He kept going for half a minute, at least, until he was spent, no more energy to burn.

His throat ached. He couldn’t see, his night vision wrecked by the imprint of the fire against his eyes.

He fumbled in his pocket. He had to contact someone.

A pair of hands at his neck. Small hands. The girl. Not strangling; a choke hold, trying to knock him out. He reached up, some buried masculine instinct telling him he could simply push her off.

He was wrong.


Twenty Three:

There were fewer guards around than there had been when she was young. Far fewer. One in the front gate control, two in the courtyard.

Where was the man on the upper floor, watching from the sniper’s nest that ringed the topmost level of the compound? Where was the one disguised as a snow-clearer? Or the one with the dogs that kept watch on the tree line? The obstacles that had constantly challenged the planning of her youth?

The place felt empty now.

It had been five days since she had stabbed Leanne; each of them gruelling in their own ways. The first day had been spent trekking her way through the thigh deep snow towards the mountain with the ski-slopes, her journey slowed by having to first head out in the wrong direction through the trees, dusting behind herself to hide her tracks in the snow, before cutting a wide arc around the complex to avoid suspicion. The route had taken her four hours longer than it reasonably should have done. The path up the mountain itself had involved rock climbing. Barehanded, after hours in the cold.

Maybe the challenge of it had been a good thing, though. For one thing, it had kept her mind from wandering too far towards Caleb. For another, arriving at the resort shivering and exhausted had made getting what she needed almost trivial. All it had cost her was some pride.

Civilians were odd people. They had so much sympathy for a young woman in the snow. Acquiring food and clothes hadn’t taken effort on her part at all. She’d spun them a story about a senseless tourist with a stolen car, and the supplies had been practically forced on her. And money. And a place to stay, provided she washed dishes for a few hours a day at the resort’s canteen.

For days, she had gathered supplies, planned her route, and waited for a snowfall heavy enough to cover her return.

She’d been surveying the place for almost a day before doubling back to ambush a car. It was strange, seeing how security had changed since her childhood. There was so much less of it now. Perhaps because the organization was currently spread out across the world; perhaps because the next batch of slaves were being hosted in a different facility. Hard to say.

Regardless of the reason, the new security made plotting her ingress insultingly easy. Especially with Sloan’s unconscious form nestled in the back seat, hidden from view by a layer or two of blankets. She hadn’t been too gentle with his bindings.

When it finally came to it, she was able to drive right in through the front gate, the illusion of Sloan’s form wrapped around her like a cloak. The man guarding the gate asked for a key-card. She gave him Sloan’s. That was all there was to it. The gate opened.

Inwardly, Twenty Three was almost stunned. It was just so strange, seeing this all for the first time from the perspective of someone other than a prisoner. This was supposed to be so much harder.

She followed the road in underneath the complex to a smaller parking bay she had seen maybe once or twice before in her life. Then, she climbed out of the car, opened the back door, located the bulge in the blankets that indicated the rough placement of Sloan’s head, and gave it a quick whack about the jaw.

Best for him not to rouse while she was here. It would complicate things.

She closed the door, and looked around. It was strange, how much smaller the place felt when she viewed it as an adult. The few times she had passed through here in her youth, it had felt huge, even cavernous, every corner holding what she could only imagine to be layer on layer of extra bays. That impression was gone now. She could see it freely.

Even so, she found herself forcing back a flinch when her eye passed the security camera. She’d beaten the instinct into herself to avoid them. Even disguised, letting it pass over her felt wrong.

She shook herself. She was wasting time.

She strode towards a side door, stepped through, and began climbing the thick concrete steps into the complex proper.

The parking bay had been half full. There would still be people around. She moved quickly.

Through empty hallway after empty hallway, Twenty Three moved. Some rooms, she recognized; places she had spied in her explorations as a girl, or the rooms in which she’d trained.

There were some places, however, that were entirely new to her. A dark room holding a bank of computer terminals. A door labelled ‘breakroom’ that she was tempted to crack open just to see what luxuries her wardens had enjoyed. She ignored them. She knew her heading.

Mostly.

It had been tempting, at first, to simply head for the cell block where she had been held in her youth. To her knowledge, it was the only section of the complex where the doors could be locked from the outside. She had to assume it was where Charlie was being held.

She had opted against it.

The cell block was a risk. To her memory, it was the place in the facility with the highest density of cameras, and the most frequent patrols of guards. She wouldn’t go there unless she had to. Disguise or no disguise. Instead, she moved in what she had to hope was the direction of the security room; a place she had only ever glimpsed through the air ducts.

She didn’t like moving in the open like this. No shadows for her newly bulbous form to cling to; her pace limited to a brisk stride. It rankled.

Once or twice, she encountered others; a middle aged woman who gave a word of greeting as they passed each other by; a younger man who spared a wave. She bit down the urge to strike them.

The journey to the security room took a bit longer than she would have liked; her attempts at navigating through routes other than the air vents leading her into a couple of wrong turns, before finally bringing her to a door.

She knocked.

A second or two of quiet. She reached for the handle, but it swung open before she had time to grasp it, just wide enough for the man on the other side to stick his head through, a chain-lock holding the door from opening any further.

“Yeah, Sloan?” the man asked, shadows under his eyes and a patch of untidy bristles on his chin. “What do you ne-”

Twenty Three was inside the building now. She wouldn’t waste time conserving energy. She reached out, grasped the man by the hair, used a pulse of indigo flame to break his shield, then slammed his face against the doorframe. She watched his nose snap sideways with a crunch. He opened his mouth for a cry, and found her free hand pressed against his lips.

“Don’t say a word,” she spoke, her voice clear, quiet and calm. “Put your hands where I can see them. Now.”

For a moment, it seemed he wouldn’t comply, too shocked; his hands too busy scrabbling at her own. She gave his jaw a squeeze. He let out a muted whine.

“Stop moving,” she said. “Hands in view. Right now.”

With a small nod, the man raised his hands into her view, moisture building slowly in his eyes.

“Good,” she murmured. “Now keep them there. I’m going to let go of your mouth. Make a sound, and I will kill you.”

She looked into his eyes, waited for him to nod, then pulled her hand away. The man opened his mouth to scream. She punched him in the throat. His vocalizations stopped, his attention focused on simply trying to breathe.

She moved her fingers up along the chain that held the door closed, feeling at the latch. Too tight. There’d be no unlocking it without the door closed. She wouldn’t give the guard that chance to call for help, but pulling it from the frame would make noise. A simple enough problem to solve, but it meant more wasted energy. She sighed.

She cloaked her forefinger and thumb in fire, and gave the chain a squeeze, melting the metal through. Then, she pushed her way inside, the guard still grasped by the hair.

No one else inside. Good. She closed the door, and knocked out the guard.

So much for interrogation.

She turned her eyes to the camera feeds, gazing across one after the next. A dozen or so empty hallways. A cafeteria with all of three people inside. She pressed a switch, the screens flicking over to the cell block.

Interesting. Half the rooms were empty. The other half, as far as she could tell, held prisoners.

These prisoners were odd, though. They weren’t hunting dogs. She was sure of that. They were too disparate in their ages. Too much emotion behind their eyes. A muscular man sat on his bed, arms laden with tattoos, and fists resting on his lap, utterly calm. There were shadows dancing around his feet. In the next feed across, a little girl had her head buried in a pillow, her form shaking. As Twenty Three watched, another, seemingly identical little girl seemed to sprout from her shoulders, and began patting her on the back.

There were more. Over a dozen of them. Some with powers, some without. Then, she found what she was seeking.

A lone boy, an untouched meal sitting beside him on his bed, the edges of bandages barely visible beneath his clothes.

She checked the hallway feeds. Just a single guard.

Where were they all?

She pressed another switch. The west wing: almost empty. The second floor: deserted. She checked medical.

Another collection of rooms. All mostly empty, barring a few with people moving about them on hands and knees. One room, however, was full.

‘Ah,’ she thought. ‘So that’s what they did when the chains failed.’

Her fellow assets were at rest. She had to assume they were, at least. They didn’t seem to be struggling. They looked to be asleep. That may have had something to do with the medicine bags hooked up to their wrists. She recognized a few as assets from her batch. The others looked to be younger; perhaps part of Caleb’s group.

Some were laid in beds. But the medical ward only had four beds. There were more of them on the floor. They were under guard; men with guns at either end of the room, and another walking up and down. At least that explained where the security force had gone.

‘Kept in a coma the moment you couldn’t control them,’ said a bitter voice inside her head. ‘Why not just kill them?’

Then, she asked herself that question again, without the sarcasm.

Why hadn’t they just killed them?

She cast her eyes about again, then squinted at the workers crawling about the upper level. What were they doing? She watched one man pull something indistinct from his pocket, then place it on the ground, his hand tracing a shape on the floor around it.

She squinted.

‘Oh,’ she thought. ‘Shit, it’s a ritual.’

She took a moment to map out the camera feeds inside her head.

‘It’s a ritual centred around the medical ward.’

That was unsettling, to say the least. She felt a pain in her chest for those who, a long time ago, had been her friends. She pushed it aside. For now, she had a job to do, and for now, security was elsewhere. The rest could wait. When she had Charlie out of here, the government could burn it all in her wake.

She paused to bind the security guard and crush his phone, then set off.

One last guard, patrolling the halls of the cell block. She got the drop on him with ease, then dumped him in one of the empty cells. She took his keys, and allowed the illusion of Sloan’s form to fade. On to Charlie’s cell.

A knock at his door. No answer.

She knocked again.

“Go away.”

“Dude,” she muttered back. “It’s me. I’m here to get you out.”

“… Go away,” he repeated, his voice deeply tired.

“What?” she asked, not bothering to hide her surprise as she unlocked the door. “Charlie, come on. I told you. It’s Twenty Three. We’ve got to go.”

“I said fuck off!” came the reply, just as she swung the door open.

Charlie was glaring at her from his seat on the bed, his eyes red and swollen, a deep bruise covering his cheek. She could see him better, without the poor resolution of the screen. There were bandages at his waist, too, visible beneath the hem of his shirt. She wondered briefly how far the presumed injuries went.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why are you all cut up?”

For a second, Charlie didn’t answer. Then he shook his head.

“… They found out about my power,” he muttered. “Said I’m too important for them to lose.” He sniffed, then pulled back a sleeve, displaying yet more bandages travelling up around his arm. “They put a tracking chip in me. Said they’d made a whole bunch of extra cuts so I couldn’t tell where the real one was. Mr. Grey says no matter where I go, he can teleport right to me.”

‘Fuck.’

For his part, Charlie wasn’t done. He sniffed.

“What took you so long?” he asked, a sullen accusation in his voice. “I held out for days. Why the hell did you stay away so long?”

“Shut up,” she muttered. “I’m thinking.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up!” he snapped. “All of this is your fault! You lied to m-”

He was interrupted by the older girl taking two quick steps across the room and flicking him in the temple.

“Calm down, or we’re screwed,” she said flatly. “There might still be a way out. But I can’t find it with you yelling.”

Charlie glowered at her, but thankfully quieted.

Twenty Three sat herself down beside the boy, her mouth resting against her hands.

This was bad. This was very bad.

The whole plan, from start to finish, had revolved around being gone before any of the bodies she’d left behind were found. She could leave. Even now, she could turn around, get back in Sloan’s car, and leave. They wouldn’t figure out what had happened for at least the dozen or so minutes required to check the security feeds. But she couldn’t take Charlie with her.

No portals, either. Distance wouldn’t help.

It was a smart move. Putting a tracker in Charlie made it impossible to get him out without fighting their way through. Twenty Three groaned.

“No ideas, genius?” Charlie asked sarcastically. “I thought you could get us out of this with your eyes cl-”

“What we really need,” Twenty Three said, more to herself than to Charlie. “Is an attack. I’m not strong enough to get you out of here on my own. I’d need support from a heavy hitter, like the woman who backed up Caleb. Someone who could turn the tables here.”

“You mean James’ grandma?”

“What?” Twenty Three asked, annoyed. “Who?”

“The old lady who helped out your friend,” Charlie replied. “James’ grandma.”

“You know her?”

Charlie shrugged.

“Sure.”

“… Do you have her number?”

“No,” the boy replied. Twenty Three had already scrapped the idea and gone back to planning, when he continued. “I know James’ number, though. Why?”

For a moment, Twenty Three considered it. This solution was less than ideal. At worst, it wouldn’t help. At best, they’d be making their escape in the middle of a war-zone. She considered her other options.

“Fuck it,” she muttered, pulling out her phone. “I didn’t want to do this before I got you out of here, because I’m pretty sure these assholes track my phone calls, and it makes everything more dangerous, but we haven’t got any other options. We’re calling reinforcements.”

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