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.


James:

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

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

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

At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled.

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

James snickered.

“She’d kick your butt.”

“She’d try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friggen’ radar brain.

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

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

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

Just say you’re sorry.

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

Why was this so hard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him.

“You okay?”

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

At that, Casper shook his head.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

Eventually, Casper spoke again.

“So, that thing about the phone.”

That got his attention.

“Yeah?”

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

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

Casper chuckled.

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

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

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

“… And asking you about your school day?”

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

“… You okay?”

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

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

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. You too.”

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Aid: 5.1

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James:

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

At first, James’ only response was to laugh. The statement was just too silly; more like something out of a morning cartoon script than real life. He snorted, then shook his head, and turned his gaze to Caleb… only to see that the other boy wasn’t laughing. He felt something cold settle in his stomach.

“… You’re serious,” he murmured, the words coming out faint, half-shocked.

“I wouldn’t joke about this.” Caleb replied, his voice deeply tired. “I… Look. No offence. You’re a cool kid, and I honestly kinda like hanging out with you, but… God damn it.” He brought a hand up against his forehead, and let out a groan. “It was the only way for me to escape, okay?”

In response, James simply stared. The other boy’s explanation, far from adding clarity, had only added another layer of confusion. Caleb peeked out from under his hand, saw James’ expression, and shook his head.

“Okay, look. In the simplest terms, I’m a slave, alright?”

“… You’re a what?”

“A slave,” Caleb repeated, his tone bitter. “I’m not gonna say it again. It’s not a fun thing to admit. My masters bred me and the others like me to hunt monsters. They wanted a hunting dog that was smart enough to do most of the work on its own without too much oversight; so, about thirty years ago, they started collecting half-breeds. People with a little bit of werewolf, or vampire, or whatever else, and began trying to get the right mix for a really good hunter. That’s why I’ve got a bunch of tiny powers instead of one big one.”

Caleb stopped there for a moment, and turned his gaze skywards, apparently waiting for James to comment. For his part, however, James had no idea what to say. This was… Too much of a curveball. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, before finally managing a quiet:

“Um…”

Caleb let out a single dark chuckle at that.

“Yeah. Pretty fucked up.” The boy fell silent then, returning his gaze to the stars while James muddled it all through inside his head. He was too tired for this.

“… Can’t you just, you know, run away?” he asked.

“I could,” Caleb agreed. “And I’d make it maybe four hours before they killed me. They put sort of a…” he stopped for a moment, seemingly in thought, then shrugged. “Meh, I might as well just show you. It’s easier than explaining, you know?”

James did not know. The other boy had thus far left him utterly confused; a feeling that redoubled when, without any further warning, Caleb shrugged off his jacket, and started peeling his shirt up away from his chest. James had a moment to glimpse a surprisingly developed set of muscles being revealed beneath the hem, before he turned away, his cheeks very red.

“… Are you gonna look or not?” Caleb asked, the faintest hint of annoyance running momentarily through his voice. “It’s cold out here.”

James hesitated for a long moment, before turning to look. Caleb had his back to him now, one hand pointing to the patch of skin just below his neck.

It was a tattoo, James thought; a series of flowing lines and oddly shaped symbols stitching themselves together into a circle between the boy’s shoulder blades, etched in black against the skin. James wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but in the evening gloom, he thought he might have caught it glowing.

“They give us these brands on the day they start teaching us magic,” Caleb muttered. “It lets them drain the magic out of us when they want to. It’s way harder to prep an escape if you only have enough for a spell or two every day.” He turned to look at James, and began to pull his shirt back on.

“But that’s not the bad part. See, if you start to disobey, or they start to think you’ve run away, then they just keep draining you till it kills you. There’s no running away from it.”

“… And killing me was supposed to help with that?” James asked, his confusion finally finding something concrete to latch onto, and allowing the betrayal to finally register inside his mind.

“… No,” Caleb admitted sourly. “I was gonna use you to get myself free, but that wasn’t the part that was gonna kill you. I’ve been sort of scavenging little bits and pieces around the place that could maybe help me get myself out of this.” At that, he pushed off from the ledge, allowing his body to slide down the incline into the skating pit. He trudged towards the basketball, and gave it a kick.

“It was small stuff,” he murmured. “Ingredients for spells that no one would miss, recipes for rituals that could maybe help me get away clean. I picked one up about a year ago that was supposed to let me pull the magic out of someone for a while, maybe supercharge myself enough to overload my brand and run. And then I found you; a kid who was so powerful it might even be enough to let me free two people. I got greedy.”

James gazed down at the other boy, unsure of what to feel. A part of him still wanted to be furious. Another part of him was angry at himself for that. He shook his head.

“Who are they?” he asked. “This other person you wanted to save?”

“… She’s called Twenty Three,” Caleb muttered. “They don’t really give us names. She’s my… I dunno. My partner, I guess.”

James tactfully ignored the faint trace of red dusting the other boy’s cheeks at that.

“So, why do you have a name, then?”

“I don’t,” Caleb grunted. “I’m a number too. I chose Caleb.”

“What num-”

“Don’t,” Caleb cut him off. “Please, just. Just let me be Caleb, okay? I’d like to have just one person who didn’t think of me as a number.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb folded his arms, then gave him a nod.

“So,” he continued. “That ritual. I was gonna call you out for training, set it up, and snare you. Then, while you were weakened, I was gonna knock you out and call my masters to tell them I captured an extremely potent cross-breed.”

“… The heck?” James asked, something akin to rage rekindling itself inside his gut. “Who does that, Ca-”

“I told you I was planning to kill you,” Caleb interjected tonelessly. “Handing you over to them would have meant they’d take you to their main facility to get you branded. Then, all I’d have to do is tell your family where you were, and that you’d been kidnapped by my boss, and suddenly my masters would be too busy dealing with a family of angry mega mages to notice me and my partner escaping. You either die in the crossfire, or get killed because my master would rather kill you than let you get away. I make it out clean, and spend the rest of my life trying not to think about the kid I killed.” He took a deep breath, and turned his eyes to the stars.

“But then that friend of yours fucked it all up.”

“You were going to use my family as a weapon?!” James asked, incensed.

“Yes,” Caleb replied, his tone deeply bitter. “I was. But then you go and you start talking to that Tasha girl about your family and she hands you off to talk to some dude she lives with, and you call him your grandpa. So, suddenly, if I ever actually DO try and kidnap you, the first thing she’ll do is tell your grandad about this guy you’ve been hanging out with who she totally doesn’t trust. Suddenly, your family won’t be going after my master at all. Suddenly, they’ll be going after me. All that work, for fucking noth-”

The wind blast hit Caleb in the side, slamming his shoulder against the concrete wall of the pit with the force of a small car. There was a loud crack, and he let out a yelp of surprise and pain. He turned back to look at James, and got halfway through a curse word, before the second one struck him in the nose.

A part of James wondered why the other boy hadn’t bothered trying to dodge. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He struck again, and Caleb fell to his knees. He struck again.

He wanted to shout. He wanted to scream. If he could have thought of the words, then perhaps he would have done so. As it was, however, James kept silent as he beat his former friend. Five, ten, fifteen blows. He kept going until the rage that filled him had burned itself down to merely a slight tremor running through his fingers, before finally, he spoke, his voice quiet.

“You don’t use my family like that, Caleb.”

The bloodied boy took a few moments to push himself upright, then gazed at James, his expression cold.

“I wasn’t asking you to forgive me,” he muttered, pausing briefly to wipe the blood from his lip with a sleeve. “I just wanted you to know. Try and have someone in the world who knows that I’m a pers-”

“Shut up,” James muttered. “I don’t care what you want. I wish I could, but I don’t. Just-” he hesitated for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “… Just tell me about this ritual. Will it let me get my power back after?”

“… What?” Caleb asked, one eye going wide in shock, the other swollen closed where it had struck against the concrete.

James rolled his eyes.

“I mean, obviously, I’m gonna need to know how this thing works if we’re gonna figure out how to get you and your partner free, aren’t I?”

For a long time, Caleb simply gazed at him, his mouth hanging ever so slightly open as fresh blood oozed towards his chin.

“You…” he mumbled. “You mean you’re just gonna let me drain you?”

James gazed stonily at the older boy for a moment, then let out a sigh.

“Caleb,” he murmured.

“Yeah?”

“You’re an idiot.”

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Dissonance: 4.12

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Author’s Note: Well, this one should be interesting. Sorry it took so long. So. First up, here’s a link to the bonus chapter vote for this arc, and secondly, an awesome dude called Sharkerbob has done a dramatic read-through of one of my chapters. Both of those things are cool, especially Sharker. So, moving on, let’s do the chapter.

James:

“I don’t get why I have to meet them, though,” Casper grumbled, following grudgingly along in the other boy’s wake. James rolled his eyes.

“Cuz you need more friends, Casper,” he replied shortly, lowering his voice a little as they approached the table. “Just me isn’t enough. Besides, I’m tired of having to choose between you and them every day.” At that, he raised his voice again. “Hey, guys! This is Casper. He’s a doof. Can we friend him?”

The table was mostly empty today, most of the group having likely set off once again for a game. Charlie was there, though, along with Nailah. At James’ call, the two of them glanced up from the array of monster cards scattered across the tabletop. Charlie’s freckle dusted face split into a grin.

“Hey, James!” he called. “Hey, Casper. Give us like, two seconds, okay? I’m so close to a win here.”

Nailah snorted at that.

“Nope,” she murmured back, laying down a fresh card. “I cast ‘Barrel of Explodium’. That’s you out of life points. Again.”

“What? No,” Charlie protested. “That’s six damage. I had seven left. I know I did!”

James chuckled at that, tugging Casper in behind him as he sat.

“Don’t argue maths with Nai; she’ll just make you lose harder.”

Charlie shot him a scowl. He countered with the most innocent smile he could manage. Beside him, Casper sat down on the bench, frowning, eyes on the table.

James sighed, and prodded the older boy in the ribs.

“Oi. No clamming up for you.” When Casper didn’t respond, he turned his gaze to the others. “Casper runs a light deck. Keeps trying to beat me with just human soldiers and enchantments.”

“Well that’s lame,” Charlie replied, picking up James’ lead and thankfully running with it. “Humans are like, one/one monsters across the board, right? How can you win without any decent champions?”

For a few moments, the words hung dead in the air, Casper still frowning quietly down at the tabletop. James had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Nailah had just opened her mouth to speak, when Casper replied, his voice small.

“Didn’t you just try and beat fire with a forest deck?”

The words earned him a smile from Nailah, and a playful glare from Charlie.

“Hey,” he shot back. “Don’t you go dissing my green deck. I’ll take the whole world on with nothing but bunnies and tiger spells.”

“Say that after you beat me, kay?” Nailah countered. “My fire shall reign forever.”

“… I totally need to bring my deck sometime,” Casper murmured, giving the girl a small smile. “My humans will destroy you.”

“Foolish mortal,” Charlie countered as he gathered up his cards. “It takes more than mere men to counter the gods.” He gave James a nudge on the shoulder. “You bring your deck today?”

“Nope.” James shrugged. “I had some other stuff going on. Got kinda distracted. Sorry.”

“Wanna play with mine?” Charlie held up his freshly collected deck. “See if you can beat the fire queen?”

“Uh, sure.” James took the proffered deck, and shuffled around the table to sit across from Nailah. Charlie shifted a little to give him some room, then, out of nowhere, grabbed him by the shoulder, and gave him a noogie, ignoring both his outrage and his protests.

“You can do this, squire. I believe in you.”

“Hah!” Nailah cackled, apparently getting rather into her fire queen bit. “You expect me lose to the likes of him? He is but a child with a borrowed deck!”

James didn’t answer immediately, he was too busy fixing his hair. He shot Charlie a glare, and the taller boy smiled back, sunny as ever. He slung an arm around James’ shoulders, and leaned in to murmur a loud stage whisper into his ear.

“She is weak, young padawan. Her fire runs only on stolen power. You can unseat her, child. It is your destiny.”

James took a moment to respond to that. He wanted to be annoyed at the taller boy for messing up his hair, but it was hard. He found himself distracted for a moment by the weight of the arm over his shoulders, his attention somehow drawn to how close Charlie’s lips were to his ear. He felt his cheeks grow a little warm.

Nope.

He wrenched his mind away from that particular line of thought with all the force he could muster, and shook himself.

“Not a child,” he grumbled, managing a decent approximation of irritation as he ducked out from under the other boy’s arm. “I’m a grown up now. My dad even let me say the F word.”

“He let you say fuck?” Casper asked, grinning. “Wow, such a cool dad.”

“Yeah,” Nailah murmured, shooting him a wink. “I wish my dad let me say fuck. That’d be so ace.”

“… Shut up.”

“I guess I’ll have to stick with good ol’ Gee Willikers,” Casper continued. “Cuz I’m just not a real grown up yet.”

James glowered at him.

“Come on, guys,” Charlie cut in, his tone placating. “Don’t be mean. Saying the F word is very grown up.” James had just enough time to feel grateful, before the boy added a follow up. “I’m sure he’d be happy to demonstrate for us, too. Go on, James.”

“… What?” James looked into the other boy’s face at that, ready to protest. Charlie’s eyes were very blue under the auburn of his hair. He looked away.

“Swear,” Charlie murmured, humor teasing at the edges of his tone. “Say fuck, since you’re such a cool adult and all.”

“… I was only s’posed to say it once,” he muttered, glaring at his legs.

“Such an adult.”

“I hate all of you.”


The rest of the day passed largely uneventfully. James played cards with his friends, debated TV shows with Casper, and went to class. It was soothing, to an extent. Everything felt right again. All things in their place. He went home, did his homework, and played with Bex while Casper worked in the kitchen. When dinner came, he was honestly surprised. Turned out the other kid really knew how to cook. It was some kind of pasta, and it was delicious.

The only hiccup came when he and Casper moved to his room that evening, deciding to watch more shows while the other boy caught up on his school work.

He was sitting on the floor, muddling through an overlarge case of DVDs, when the other boy spoke, his voice quiet.

“So, Charlie’s kinda cool.”

James smiled to himself at that, still flicking through page after page of discs.

“I know, right?” he murmured. “It’s super cool you two are friends now. We do choir practice together, and he sings really we-”

“He’s cute, too,” Casper continued, his tone casual. “Don’t you think?”

James froze for a moment at that, his hands halting midway through tugging the right disc from its sleeve. It took his mind a few moments to wind back into motion.

“… What was that?” He glanced back at Casper. The boy was gazing at him, his expression calm.

“Charlie,” Casper repeated. “You think he’s cute.”

“… No I don’t,” James muttered, returning his gaze to the discs. “Don’t be dumb.”

“I’m not being dumb,” the other boy replied. “Empath, remember? Why’d you go all weird when he got close to you? Cuz it felt a like you were having sexy thou-”

“Can you not?” James asked, his voice caught between pleading and irritation. “Please? I felt weird for a couple seconds, that’s all. You don’t need to put any other stuff into it.” He pressed the button to open up the DVD player, and let out a huff. “… This is why being friends with you is weird. I never get to just deal with stuff on my own.”

For a few seconds, Casper didn’t respond. A part of James wondered if he’d hurt the other boy. He refused to look at him. When the older boy finally spoke, his voice was quiet.

“… You know there’s nothing wrong with liking boys, right?”

James let out an aggravated grunt at that.

“Of course I do,” he snapped. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t. Like. Boys.” He put as much emphasis as he could into the last few words, then shot his friend a scowl. Casper was still just sitting there, utterly calm. “Even if I did, I don’t want to deal with all the sexy stuff right now. It’s gross!”

For a few minutes, the two of them were quiet. James was angry. He wasn’t even all that sure why. He just knew that Casper was making him angry, with those stupid calm words and that stupid calm face. He glared at it.

After a long while, Casper sighed.

“Empathy sucks sometimes, you know?”

James didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned on the TV, and finished setting up the show. He got up, plopped himself down on the furthest edge of the bed from Casper that he could, and set his eyes to the screen, not really seeing it. Neither of them spoke.

He was still angry when, ten minutes later, his phone rang. He picked it up without bothering to look at the screen, and pressed it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Caleb.”

For the briefest moment, James felt a tiny flicker of relief undercut his rage. He’d been worried for a while there that Caleb might not want to speak to him.

“Hey,” he murmured, ignoring the way Casper’s gaze shifted across to him. “You uh… You doing okay?”

At the other end of the line, Caleb let out a tired laugh.

“No. Not really. I uh. I was hoping you could maybe come see me? I… Kinda wanted to explain some stuff.”

“Sure,” James replied, perplexed. “You got a time ready to do a meet up or-”

“I’m at the park near your place,” Caleb cut him off. “The one with the skateboards. Can you meet me? It’s kind of important.”

For a moment, James considered saying no. His parents were home. It was already getting dark. Then he glanced at Casper, felt another twinge of anger.

“Sure. Just give me a couple minutes. Kay?” He didn’t wait for a response before he hung up. He dropped the phone in his pocket, and stood up. The basketball sat in the far corner of the room, and he extended a hand, his power reaching out along with it to grasp the air inside the sphere. The practice bouts had helped a lot with his control, and now, the ball flew straight as he pulled it towards his hand, its movement quick, but steady.

“I’m going out,” he muttered behind himself. “I have some stuff to do.”

“… Stuff we’re allowed to talk about?” Casper asked, his tone a tad concerned.

“No,” James replied shortly. “Other stuff.”


It wasn’t too hard for James to get his parents to let him outside. They might be a little restrictive, but it was still early enough in the evening, and they knew he could defend himself. He promised to be back in an hour, and stepped outside, the ball tucked under an arm.

One short walk later, he found Caleb at the park, sitting alone on the lip of the skate rink. Without a word, he walked over, and sat himself alongside him.

Caleb didn’t look too good. There were shadows under his eyes, a trace of blood and dust still clinging to his clothes from yesterday’s fight. James didn’t ask about the fresher blood on his knuckles, nor the dried tears across his cheeks.

“… What’s up?” he asked, turning his gaze down into the skating pit. He absently tossed the basketball down into it, and watched the thing as it bounced.

“… I’ve been lying to you,” came the response, Caleb, like himself, opting to just watch the ball as it moved. “Wanted to say sorry I’m a shitty friend.”

James wanted to say the words were surprising, but they weren’t. He wasn’t an idiot.

“You mean you’re not a teenage monster hunter?” he asked, his voice deadpan.

Caleb chuckled.

“Actually, that’s the only thing I told you that was true. It’s the rest that was all BS. I am a monster hunter, but I wasn’t trying to train you.” James chanced a glance at the older boy. Caleb was still just watching the ball, his hands clasping together in his lap, still gently dripping blood. He returned his gaze to the ball, and gave it a little push with his wind to keep it bouncing.

“… What were you trying to do, then?”

At that, Caleb allowed himself another short chuckle, and closed his eyes.

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

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Dissonance: 4.8

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

Tasha:

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

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

Okay. This hurts.

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

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

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

Caleb didn’t quite manage to finish the sentence before Tasha kicked at him, bringing her leg forwards as hard as she could towards his shins. The blow didn’t even come close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“James,” he growled. “No interfe-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confused, Tasha followed the boy’s gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

“… Weird.”

“… Yeah.”

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

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

Tasha hesitated, then glanced at Caleb, and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

“…Huh.”

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

Tasha thought about that for a second, then shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To his credit, Caleb rallied fast.

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

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

At that, Caleb only sighed.

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

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

“Well, you sure screwed that one up.”

“I know. Sorry.”

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

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha snickered.

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

Caleb ignored her.

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

James frowned at that.

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

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

James didn’t answer that. He seemed stung.

For her part, Tasha grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I’m-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha chuckled humorlessly at that.

“Makes sense. Magic’s BS, anyways.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On his end of the line, Hideyoshi grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, surprised.

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

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

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

“Ah.” Tasha winced.

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

“Yeah. Sure.”


James:

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

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

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

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

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

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

… What?

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

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

“… Ojiisan?”

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Dissonance: 4.7

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Tasha:

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

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

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

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

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

“Fucken. Sweet.”


James:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hah! You missed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately, James felt his frustration lift a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” the others replied in unison.

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

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

Caleb was ready for her.

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