Aid: 5.5

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


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

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

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

At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled.

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

James snickered.

“She’d kick your butt.”

“She’d try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friggen’ radar brain.

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

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

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

Just say you’re sorry.

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

Why was this so hard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him.

“You okay?”

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

At that, Casper shook his head.

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


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

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

Eventually, Casper spoke again.

“So, that thing about the phone.”

That got his attention.


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

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

Casper chuckled.

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

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

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

“… And asking you about your school day?”

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

“… You okay?”

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

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

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. You too.”

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Aid: 5.4

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

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

The man was late. Father was never late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the man had asked him for a nude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t like your surprises.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… So you’re a kid now?”

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

Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that.

“Am I, uh… Am I supposed to like it?”

Almost immediately, Father’s face fell.

“… You don’t like it.”

Casper shook his head.

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

At that, Father frowned, apparently stung.

“Why creepy?”

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

Father scowled, offended.

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

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

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

“Only when your mind control failed!”

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, Casper only sighed.

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

Now it was Father’s turn to sigh.

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

Casper nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.3

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Sixteen years ago, Asset Twenty Three:

“We can get out of here. I know we can. Together.”

The air vent was sticky; hot wind blowing constantly through a space so cramped that even she, the smallest of the children, could barely fit inside it. Twenty Three ignored the heat, and focused on keeping her breathing even. Trainer Sloan was about to leave for the night, and he always left his keycard in the second drawer of his desk. She just had to be still for a few more minutes.

She was sweating, droplets of liquid soaking into the joints of her fatigues, making them chafe. Some of it was from the heat, some from the stress. This was their only chance; they’d be moved to the new facility soon.

Through the slats in the heating vent, she watched as Sloan signed off his computer, stood up from his desk, and stretched. Twenty Three scowled. She didn’t like Sloan. He was fat, and loud, and he always got so angry if her scores dropped on any of her exercises. Sloan was mean.

Twenty three breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the man finally made to move towards the door, stowing his keycard in the drawer and grabbing his coat off the rack, just as planned. Twenty Three waited until a few seconds after the door had swung closed behind him, then set to work at the screws that bolted the heating vent into the wall.

For the longest time, figuring out a way to unbolt the vents and sneak into the offices had been the biggest obstacle in their plan, but then the beating night had happened, and unscrewing them by hand had ceased to be an issue. She was stronger now.

Twenty seconds of effort later, she was out of the sweltering vent, and in the office. She didn’t waste her time. They had to be quick here. She moved to the drawer, grasped the handle, and pulled.

It didn’t budge. From her new perspective, she was able, for the first time, to see the stainless steel lock embedded in the drawer’s front end.


Okay, Twenty Three. Time to think. You can do this. Twenty Four’s counting on you. Make a plan.

For almost seven seconds, the girl wracked her brain. Her first idea was dumb. Really, incredibly, dumb. She didn’t have time to think of anything else. She moved to the door, cracked it ajar, and poked her head out into the unfamiliar hallway.

More office doors. No people though; not for now, at least. No cameras, either. She counted that as a blessing, and closed her eyes.

Footsteps, moving away from her, to the left, then down a bend. More to the right, these ones moving towards her. The ones to her left were heavy; more weight sitting behind each impact against the carpet. Without even a second of hesitation, Twenty Three began to run.

The footsteps behind her were drawing closer now. She glanced behind herself, and saw an unfamiliar figure rounding the bend in the hall. She had a second, at most, before they saw her. No time to think.

Twenty Three glanced around herself, and dove for the first cover she could find. An ornamental flower pot sporting a large, plastic molded fern; fake leaves branching in every direction at once. She landed, caught herself, and curled into as tight of a ball as she could be.

Too slow. She’d been too slow. She knew it. Whoever it was had to have seen her dive. She’d failed. She closed her eyes, didn’t even dare to breathe. One second. Two seconds. Three…

The footsteps were heading right for her. For the first time in her short life, Twenty Three found herself in prayer. Not to god. What little education she’d been given with regard to God had said that he was reserved for people better than her.

In lieu of God, Twenty Three prayed to the small things. She prayed to Twenty Four. She prayed to watching the stars together through the window of their cell. She prayed to making faces together when their instructors’ backs were turned. She prayed to the happy things.

The footsteps drew nearer still.

It took everything the girl had to resist the urge to bolt; just to sit there, shaking silently, and hope for fate to save her.

By the time the footsteps stopped, they were barely a yard away. She prayed harder.

Three… Two… One…

On the other side of the flower pot, she heard a door creak open, and her pursuer’s footsteps moving further away.

She didn’t allow herself a moment to be relieved. She didn’t have the time. Slan’s footsteps were growing more and more distant by the second. She ran. Keeping low, keeping quiet, Twenty Three pursued that man faster than she’d ever moved before.

She caught him in a foyer, heard the low murmur as he spoke to a woman behind a desk, leaning casually against the counter.

He’d always told her she was a clumsy little creature, but he didn’t even notice when she swept the keys from his pocket. She took no time to gloat, however. The moment she had them, it was back to the office, as fast as she could go.

Drawer open. Keycard retrieved. Drawer locked back up again. She left the keys on top of his desk. Hopefully, he’d just think he forgot them. Then, she got back inside the vent, and set to work screwing the frame back into place against the wall. She was running late. Her detour had cost them almost a minute. Twenty Four would be wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore the heat as she crept her way back through the ducts towards her partner.

The warden was easy enough to dodge as she made the short trip back through the common area to her cell, doing the best she could to act like nothing was wrong. She didn’t like the warden. His breath smelled of fish when he leaned in close.

No sooner had she made it back through the door than something struck her in the side, and she felt something begin to wrap around her, binding her tightly. She was wound up so tightly that she was already filling her lungs to scream before her brain kicked back in, and she recognized him.

It was Twenty Four, his breathing was ragged. She hugged him back.

“What took you so long!?” the boy asked, his voice an urgent whisper. “You were gone ages!”

“Fattie’s desk had a lock on it,” she muttered, patting her partner gently on the back to calm him. “Grabbed his keys. We’re okay.”

In the back of his throat, her partner let out a growl.

“I hate him,” he muttered, giving her another quick squeeze before he pulled away. “I hate him so much! He doesn’t even let stealing from him be easy!”

At that, Twenty Three let out a giggle.

“He’s Fattie,” she answered. “It’s his job to make things suck.”

Twenty Four grinned.

“Well, anyway. You got the card?”

“Yup!” she nodded. “You did your bit?”

At that, Twenty Four’s grin widened.

“Yeah. I found us some big winter coats and a bunch of socks. If we wear enough, we should be okay outside without shoes; even in the snow. I even managed to sneak some food.”

“Okay,” Twenty Three nodded. “That’s everything. Now, we just gotta do it and we’re free.” Saying those words, the girl felt something, like a buzzing in her stomach. It felt like fear, but more charged, more excited. Their freedom was so close. She dug the keycard out of her pocket, and passed it across to the boy.

Much as she hated it, Twenty Three knew that this part of the plan had to be Twenty Four’s. He was the one with access to the ever crowded laundry rooms. Now, all that was left was for him to sneak through to the exit with their supplies, get past the gate, and use the card to open up a path for her to follow. She’d know it was her chance when he signalled her through the window.

There were few words exchanged in the moments before he took his leave. Just a second of awkward silence, followed by the tightest hug they’d ever shared.

“Stay safe, okay?” she said, her heart already thudding in her chest.

“Course I will,” he mumbled back. “… Just three more minutes, kay? Three minutes, and then we’ll be free.”

Twenty Three had nothing to say to that. She could hardly even believe it. She nodded into her partner’s shoulder.

“… You gonna let me go, then?” he asked, his tone just a little light; joking, in spite of it all.

“No,” she muttered back, before pulling away. She sniffed. “… See you soon.”

Twenty Four nodded. Then, without another word, he slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself with a quiet thud.

Twenty Three took a deep breath, and forced herself to be calm. Well, she tried, at least. Within a few seconds, she was pacing. Then, she was stretching; running on the spot in the middle of the room, just to dissipate the nervous energy.

This’ll work, she told herself. It has to.

After a little over a minute, she gave up trying to play it cool, and gathered up her things, before moving across the room, and climbing up to the window sill to wait.

The next two minutes were the longest she had ever felt. Longer by far, however, were the two minutes after those, and the next.

And the next.

At first, Twenty Three was merely scared. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe the card had failed. She pushed those thoughts down, and kept her gaze affixed to the snowscape beyond her window.

After ten minutes, however, when no alarms were heard, and none of the adults came in to snatch her, she felt a different kind of fear.

What if he’d left her alone? What if he’d just gone through the gate and ran? What if he hadn’t thought of her?

She pushed those thoughts aside. No. This was Twenty Four. He was her partner. He was her soul. He was her friend. They’d been together since before she’d had memories.

She didn’t want to die alone.

She was still watching through the window long after the night had come. She didn’t look away when the sun fell. She didn’t look away when the dinner call was sounded. She didn’t even look away when she heard the door opening behind her, and two of the grown ups came in to deposit something heavy on the sheets of Twenty Four’s bed.

She didn’t look away when the tears began crawling down her cheeks.

They left him on that bed all night.

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Bonus Chapter: Natalie Sharpe.

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Doctor’s notes, Subject #24170. James Toranaga. Session 3.

Notes and recommendations of attendant therapist, Natalie Sharpe:

  It has been three weeks since the previous session, due in large part to my own overloaded schedule in the aftermath of the elvish attacks. During the last week it has become apparent that James did in fact manifest abilities in the aftermath of his assault. For this reason, use of the David pseudonym has been removed. Current classification is a tentative type three. Directed self-levitation combined with aerokinetic abilities, and some form of transformational spell. He has recently initiated metaphysics training with a team of master-level field assets (his grandparents.)

  James’ parents both note a more secure sense that James is no longer hiding things from them since the discovery of his powers, and the household seems to be adjusting well to the integration of Casper Sullivan. Parents do note, however, that the relationship between the two seems to have grown slightly tense over the past few days. Sarah notes that she heard the two of them fighting, shortly before James asked to be allowed out for a walk.

  Additionally, during the elvish attack, it seems that James was struck at least once by some form of lightning blast. Be prepared to address the subject, should it be raised.

  Personal note from attendant therapist: ‘Jeez. Why did this have to get so complex?’

  Doctor Sharpe is reminded that even if the patient is not privy to her notes, professionalism does still have an inherent value.

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

James enters, closes the door behind him, and remains still for several seconds. He watches Doctor Sharpe, apparently nervous.

Doctor Sharpe: “Hi, James. It’s good to see you again.”

James: “Hey.”

A pause.

James: “So. Um. You know about, uh, everything, right?”

Doctor Sharpe smiles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Yes, James. I know you have powers. I’m a little jealous, actually. The flight sounds very freeing.”

James smiles.

James: “Heh. Yeah, you have no idea. It’s like I’m all alone up there, you know? I dunno why it feels so good.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Wanna show me?”

James: “Kinda.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles, before moving to close her window blinds. James takes a seat on the ceiling.

Doctor Sharpe: “Comfortable up there?”

James: “I feel like kind of a dork. Do I look like a dork?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Maybe.”

Doctor Sharpe returns to her seat.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Your parents told me your nightmares have been getting better.”

James: “Yeah. They have. I mean, they’re not gone or anything, but they’re not every night any more. I kinda went through some stuff lately. It feels a little smaller now.”

A pause.

James: “Is that weird?”

Doctor Sharpe: “It doesn’t need to be. Do you mind telling me what you think it was that changed things?”

James: “I… A friend of mine. I uh. I told her about what happened. She…”

A pause.

James: “She said it didn’t stop me being strong.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Sounds like a good friend.”

James: “She is.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Speaking of friends, how are things going with Casper? I heard he started cooking dinner lately.”

A pause.

James: “Things are fine.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “Is he a good cook?”

James: “Yeah. I guess.”

A pause.

James: “Okay, yeah. It’s really good. Just… He’s. Ugh. He’s such a doof.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Language.”

James: “Sorry.”

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Why’s he a doof?”

James scowls.

James: “He-”

James hesitates for several moments.

James: “Nothing.”

Doctor Sharpe: “You sure?”

James folds his arms.

James: “Yeah.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay.”

Neither James nor Doctor Sharpe speaks for several seconds. Doctor Sharpe tilts her notes so that James cannot see them, and begins doodling small cat faces in the corner of a page.

James: “Alright, fine.”

Doctor Sharpe stops drawing cat faces.

James: “So, we were at school playing wizard cards with some friends of mine, and one of them hugged me.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay. And?”

James: “And… And I kinda blushed, okay? And Casper kinda saw.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “And?”

James: “And now he thinks I like boys or something. I dunno.”

Doctor Sharpe: “And you’re saying you don’t?”

James: *Indignant* “No!”

A pause. James flushes slightly.

James: “I mean. I don’t think so.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, I have to ask. Would it be a problem if you did?”

James glares at Doctor Sharpe, who does not react. After a few seconds, he looks at his knees instead.

James: “I don’t wanna be gay.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Why not?”

James: “Cuz I don’t wanna be like the guy who hurt me.”

The two are silent for roughly thirty seconds. Doctor Sharpe sighs.

Doctor Sharpe: “If I offered you a soda, would you please come down off my ceiling? It’s hurting my neck having to look at you up there.”

James detaches from the ceiling, and seats himself in the chair, hugging his knees.

James: “Have you got coke?”

Doctor Sharpe stands, moves to the fridge, and retrieves two sodas. She places one on the table beside James’ seat, and returns to her desk. The two are quiet for a minute. Doctor Sharpe takes a drink from her soda.

Doctor Sharpe: “James. I’d like you to give me four words to describe the man who hurt you.”

James: “I told you, I don’t remember what he looks-”

Doctor Sharpe: “This isn’t about looks. Just tell me four words that thinking about him makes you think of.”

James thinks for a moment.

James: “Liar.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Meanie.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Pervert.”

James hesitates for a few seconds.

James: *Quietly* “Asshole.”

Doctor Sharpe nods. James sniffs.

James: “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said a swear.”

Doctor Sharpe: “It’s alright. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been that restrained about it, if it were me.”

James nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “Being gay doesn’t have to make you like him, James. Those are the words that would make you be like him.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Are you an asshole, James?”

A pause. James presses his face in against his knees, mumbles something the camera microphone is unable to pick up, and shakes his head.

Doctor Sharpe: “Then you’re not like him, are you?”

James doesn’t reply.

Doctor Sharpe: “Let’s take a break for a minute, here, okay?”

James nods. Doctor Sharpe stands. Camera shuts off.

Ten minutes later. Camera comes back online. Feed is obstructed by Doctor Sharpe, before she steps away, and returns to her seat. James takes a drink of his coke. He appears significantly calmer.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. How do you really feel about this boy?”

A pause.

James: “Which boy?”

Doctor Sharpe: “The one who made you blush.”

James goes slightly red.

James: “Charlie’s cool.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “I assumed.”

James: “I-”

A pause.

James: “I kinda, um.”

A pause.

James: “I kinda had a dream about him one time.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Oh?”

James: “Yeah. Before, uh. Before the rape.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Was it a good dream?”

James: “It was… Tingly.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “What were you doing in the dream?”

James: “… Stuff.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Any particular kind of stuff?”

James: “… Pass.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, try not to worry about it too much. You’re twelve. It’s called puberty. Having thoughts about boys every now and again doesn’t automatically make you gay.”

James nods.

James: “Right. Thanks.”

Doctor Sharpe: “That being said, even if you were, do you really think it’d make you anything like the man who raped you?”

James: “… No.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. If you did turn out to be gay, would it really be the worst thing in the world?”

A pause. James looks at the floor.

James: “Think I should apologize to Casper?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Only if you mean it.”

Natalie Sharpe returned to her apartment that evening almost haggard. She held a four pack of lager in one hand, a burrito tucked awkwardly under her arm as she fumbled her keys with her free hand. Getting inside took longer than it really should have done.

When she finally got the door open, she immediately dumped her beers on a table along with her keys, and began peeling off her shoes, ignoring, for the moment, the sounds of Apache yowling at her from his bed. It was only after she got the shoes off and took a step forward into the main area that her brain became aware of the smell of cat urine. Less than a second later, she recognized the feeling of something cold soaking into one of her socks. She shifted her tired eyes across the room, and gave Apache a glare of pure, concentrated death.

Apache gazed back at her, unconcerned. After a few moments, he licked his nose, and pulled himself out into a stretch.

“… Fuck you.”

Apache yawned.

Natalie continued to glare at the cat as she drew her burrito out from under her arm, slowly unwrapped it, and took a bite. Then, she trudged off into the tiny laundry room for some cat litter.

Five minutes later, she was feeling a little better. The pee was covered, the sock was slowly soaking clean, and her feet were covered by her favored pair of fluffy rabbit slippers. She was also kicking people’s asses in multiplayer while sprawled upside down on her couch, so that was cool. She hunkered her character down on a lookout post, and took aim for another player’s head.

Maybe the cat wouldn’t have to die for his crimes.

Her phone chimed.

She took her shot, watched her opponent fall, and dug the phone out of her pocket, expecting the next in her and Jack’s ongoing motivational war of post-workout selfies.

When she saw the screen, she groaned.

It was Liz.

‘I’m at the speed dating place. Where are you? You have to at least try this with me!’

Of the small collection of relationships Natalie had managed to maintain from her college days, it was being friends with Liz that most often came back to bite her in the ass. Her old roommate knew far too much about her to leave well enough alone.

She scowled.

‘I already told you I wasn’t going to that thing,’ she sent back. ‘It sounds like genuine hell.’

Off to the side, she heard the telltale click as the front door pushed open, the rubberized bottom brushing over cheap carpeting.

“Hey, Jack,” she called. “No selfie today? I thought you were gonna show me how ripped you are again.”

Her roommate gave her a tired chuckle as he stumbled his way inside, still in the cheap business suit and tie that made up his working clothes.

“Didn’t go,” he muttered. “Too busy at the office. Had to draw up finance plans for the entire upcoming quarter based on half a file of notes and a memo. God, I need a shower.”

Natalie winced in sympathy, then returned her eyes to her phone.

‘It’s a hell that could get you laid, Nat. When was the last time you did that? Or are you still pining over that hot new roommate boy of yours?’

‘… Shut up.’

‘… Want me to tell him what you think of his abs?’

Natalie glanced behind herself at that, tilting her phone to ensure Jack wouldn’t see the message, then swore under her breath at her friend.

‘I swear to God, Liz. I will end you.’

From somewhere behind her, she heard Jack’s phone chime.

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Aid: 5.2

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New Jersey Pine Barrens, James:

James Toranaga was having fun. He was having WAY too much fun.

The nearest of the targets was almost a hundred feet away; the nearest he could see, at any rate. He twisted in the air and shot off after it like an arrow loosed from a bow. The target was fast, but he was faster. He closed to spitting distance in barely more than a second and reached out with his second power, his mind extending through the wind itself to slap the projectile out of the sky. He didn’t pause to watch it fall, regardless of how satisfying that would be, but instead twisted in the air once more, searching for another target.

The pigeons were pretty basic, a bright foam padding around a baseball-like core; softened, in case they hit him. They stood out great against the leafy canopy of the forest far below. He scanned the scenery all around, and let out a groan. Nothing. He’d only managed six.

“Darn it,” he grumbled. “I wanted double digits this time.”

“Good work, Kiddo!” Hideyoshi called from the hilltop on which the launching crew was placed, his voice sounding almost as pumped as James had felt a moment before. “I’m sending up another wave! Go ahead and try it in your other form this time!”

Of the many things that might have put the wind back into James’ sails, that statement was near the top. He grinned.

“Yes sir!” he called, pivoting in midair and snapping his grandfather a playful salute, before tapping once more into his powers, and starting to push his transformation out. Two seconds of effort later, he felt the now only slightly disturbing sensation of his clothes falling through his newly spectral form.

He was so ready for this.

Far below him, his grandfather was directing teams; twenty or so operators manning the machines that would send James’ next set of targets rocketing out above the trees.

“Ready volley,” Hideyoshi called. “On three. Two. One. Pull!” The man brought his hand down, and James watched as the swarm of projectiles was launched high and fast into the sky, flying in a loose, but slowly widening formation. He let out a laugh.

Too easy.

James shot forwards once again, his titan’s arms stretching behind himself like the readied hands of god. He drew close, saw the lights twirling as the wind-lines played themselves in shining ribbons around each of the discs, and brought his colossal hands forward in a single, sharp clap, right at the centre of the swarm. When his palms met, it was with the fury of a storm. He heard the winds crash together, and watched, giddy, as the force of it sent birds to flight from their perches for dozens, if not hundreds of feet around him.

“Best. Day. Ever!”

He took a moment to take a breath of the intoxicatingly fresh forest air, then returned to his grandfather, holding his captured targets clenched in a single wind-formed fist.

“I think I broke a couple of them,” he called as he approached, gingerly lowering the skeet towards Hideyoshi, before dumping them all at his feet. “Foam’s kinda delicate.”

For a few moments, the old man didn’t speak, simply gazing at the mound of shattered discs before him. Then, he began to laugh, loud and gleeful, into the quiet forest air.

“Well, it’s official!” he crowed, putting a hand up to shade his eyes while he scanned the skies for James. “I have the strongest grandson! What was that, ten seconds? There has to be thirty of the things in that pile!”

If James had still had a face in that moment, he’d have been grinning ear to ear.

It had been a two hour drive to get from Manhattan to the testing site; a covered government facility buried in some New Jersey woodland reserve. It had been worth it, though. The air here was fresh, the trees were great, and James was able to stretch his powers out further than he’d ever had a chance to let them go. He felt alive.

“Again,” he begged. “Please. I wanna go again! I wanna hit ALL the things!”

His grandfather rolled his eyes, and gave him a chuckle.

“Okay. One more, but then, we test your flight speed.”

“Yes!” James crowed. “Best grandad! You are the best grandad!”

“Yeah, yeah.” With that, Hideyoshi turned back to the bulk of his work team. “Alright, folks, you heard the demigod. Let’s set up another volley. Teams A and C, skew your angles by fifteen degrees. We don’t want him catching half the swa-”

James lost track of his grandfather’s words beyond that point, already drifting up, high above the hill so as to watch the swarm take flight. At a bellowed word so far below him that he could barely even hear it, the machines loosed. James watched gleefully as his quarry caught the wind, each one of them trailing behind it a hundred sparkling strands of sky thrown into chaos at their passing.

Had he been watching a little closer, he might have seen one of the machines fail to fire, it’s mechanism jammed. He didn’t see this, and so, he swooped forwards, diving in to pursue the swarm in what had to be the most exciting game of his life.

He kept his distance, this time, moving to a level with the formation, then coming to a halt. He’d won with force last time. This time, he’d play the sniper, test how far and true his shots could fly in this rare, unhindered state. He never got the chance to play at full power, and he was going to make the best of it.

He set his gaze on the first of the targets, hanging loose as the formation began to lose cohesion. He extended. Not an arm, this time, but in the same manner he usually did in his human form, with the hand beyond his hand; a single tendril of thin, gently guided force. He could see it now, the imprint of his power in relief amidst the wind-lines. It was almost startling how much easier it made the shot to aim.

James struck, and nearly six hundred feet away, the first of the targets fell, not simply slapped from the sky as before, but severed cleanly in two.

… I didn’t even know I could do that.

He set his sights on a new target and didn’t notice the final launcher firing late, but for the faint cracks as his grandfather tugged its first two projectiles from the sky. Before the man could set his aim on the third, however, the point became abruptly moot. The final disc struck the membrane surrounding what little form James’ body had, and passed through it, an edge grazing just barely against one of the bluish orbs where his ribs should be.

For a moment, James was simply surprised. Watching the discus soar away, trails of what he could only really think of as himself caught in swirling eddies behind it. Then the nausea hit him.

He didn’t notice, at first, that his human body had returned. He was too busy acclimating to what might have been the worst headache in the history of pain; a pulsing in his skull that felt like being squeezed by an iron glove. He only really became aware of the reversion when he vomited, hunching over into a ball in the sky and losing what little food he had recently consumed out over the otherwise perfect forest landscape.

Don’t fall. He told himself, barely coherent as the world around him went loose and fluid as water. Whatever you do, James. You. Do. Not. Fall.

He blacked out.

“So,” Hideyoshi said through a bite of his burger, nearly an hour and a half later. “That windy thing of yours basically turns your body into a giant glowing weak spot. Good to know.”

James gazed glumly at his food. He wasn’t hungry.

Across the table, he heard the older man sigh.

“Let me guess. You’re bummed out because you were having a good time before it all went sideways, right?”

James folded his arms, and gave a sullen nod.

“Then I’ll ask you the same thing I asked your dad the first time he got himself hurt snowboarding: Do you never want to do the cool thing again? Are you giving up?”

“… No.”

“Then shape up,” Hideyoshi rumbled. “If you still want to try again, then it can’t be bad enough to get all mopey about, can it?”

James scowled, tried to think up a counter argument, failed, and settled for flicking one of his chips at him. He missed.

“That’s the spirit,” Hideyoshi murmured, chuckling.

In the silence that followed, James’ milkshake arrived. Strawberry. His favorite. He took a sip, and found it a good deal easier on his stomach than the burger. He drank more. It was hard, being sullen with a milkshake. He found his mood improving, whether he wanted it to or not.

As they resumed their overlong journey home, James found himself cheered up enough to converse, and the two of them whiled away the time on gentler things: Cartoons and school, for the most part, interspersed with a few tales from his grandfather’s youth; a number of which, to James’ surprise, seemed to have taken place during the late Momoyama period. Eventually, however, James mustered up the nerve to turn the conversation elsewhere.

“Jiji?” he asked when they were only half an hour or so from home. “If I showed you a spell I’d found, could you tell me what it did?”

Hideyoshi gave his grandson an odd look, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“You mean another power?” he asked. “Because if you’ve got even more you haven’t shown me after only a month or so of without even any real training, that’s pretty damn impres-”

“No,” James murmured, cutting the old man off. “Not that kind of spell. I mean, like, one with instructions and ingredients and stuff.”

“You mean a ritual?” asked Hideyoshi, a touch amused. “James, you know the magic books at school aren’t real, rig-”

“No,” he replied, his voice firm. “Jiji, I’m serious. I’ve got it written down. Can you take a look for me?”

Hideyoshi hesitated at that, perhaps unsure of what to say, before something in the way the boy had spoken seemed to sway him.

“Sure. Just let me find a place to park.”

The next few minutes were more than a little weird inside the car. James dug out his phone while the older man pulled the car down a side street, and set about pulling up the instructions that Caleb had given him, trying to ignore the way his grandfather kept looking at him; the occasional furtive glance out of the corner of his eye. It was a necessary discomfort, though. There was no way he’d let Caleb use a spell on him until he was sure it was what he claimed. That was why he’d gotten the instructions from him in the first place.

When the car finally slowed to a halt, James handed his grandfather the phone without a word, and waited for the verdict. He tried not to look worried while the older man tracked his eyes slowly across the screen. After a few seconds, the silence abruptly broke.

“It’s no good,” Hideyoshi muttered. “The screen’s too small. I can’t read the damn thing.”

James rolled his eyes, and leaned across the divide to enlarge the view.

Again, the inside of the car was quiet. James folded his arms.

“… James,” Hideyoshi murmured a minute or so later, speaking with the controlled calm of a man asking where a child had found a gun. “Can you tell me where in the hell you got ahold of this?”

James made an effort to look the older man in the eye as he gave his answer, regardless of how out of place it felt.

“There’s a boy I know who says he needs my help,” he said, his tone as clear and calm as he could make it. “Wants my energy so he can get away from the people who’re making him a slave. I wanted to check it with someone I could trust.”

For a long moment, Hideyoshi didn’t speak, simply gazing at his grandson, his lips parted in a silent ‘oh’.

James held his gaze as long as he could, before turning his eyes to the floor, self-conscious.

After another moment or two, he gave up waiting for the older man to speak.

“Something up?” he asked, still staring at his feet.

“No,” Hideyoshi replied eventually. “Just… Adjusting. It sounds like my grandson might be more connected to New York’s criminal underground than I am. It’s not something you expect to hear from a twelve year old.”

“… Are you gonna tell me it’s dangerous?” James asked. “That I’m in way over my head? That I could get-”

“No,” his grandfather cut him off. “I’m not.” James looked up at him at that, and saw the man gazing right back at him, his expression carefully neutral. “If I wanted to get in your way, I’d have told your dad about those misadventures with Tasha, or getting in a fight with a trafficking ring. You’re a Toranaga, and that means you’re a soldier. I expect you to know the dangers well enough on your own.” Hideyoshi sniffed, then continued.

“But, if I ever have to save you,” he rumbled. “It means you’re done. You can ask me for help, or advice, or anything you want; but if you drop yourself in trouble you don’t know how to solve, then the moment I save you, I’m marching you home and telling your dad everything I know. You’ll go back to being my grandson, and I won’t trust you with yourself like that again.”

“… Wow,” James mumbled, unsure what in the world there even was to say to that. “Um… You uh… You do know I’m just trying to help a friend of mine get away, right? I’m not trying to be Batman or anything.”

Across from him, Hideyoshi closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Oh,” he muttered tiredly. “Thank Christ above for that.”

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