Hunt: 8.1

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Casper:

Casper Sullivan set the guitar on his lap and strummed a chord.

He winced. It was badly out of tune. No surprise, really. He hadn’t played it in, what? Eight months? Nine? He twisted a few of the keys, strummed again, twisted some more.

Better.

He started playing, plucking the bass-line to an old favorite from memory, trying not to think.

It felt weird being back in his old house; off-axis, sitting on a bed he hadn’t touched in almost a year, trying to ignore the thin coating of dust that lay over everything he owned. Used to own.

Why did none of it feel like his?

He kept playing. He’d been good at the guitar. Still was, apparently.

It didn’t take up much of his attention.

He cast a glance back toward the cardboard box beside the door, then once more looked about the room.

What was he supposed to want from here? The bookshelf full of stories he had half-memorized?  The trading cards he’d long-since replaced? The action figures once played with by a younger, happier kid?

None of it meant anything to him anymore.

He wasn’t even mad. It just felt weird.

He stopped the song midway, and let himself fall back against the bed, gazing at the ceiling.

‘Oh yeah. I remember putting up those stickers. Mom got so mad.’

He felt his lips crawling toward a smile, and put a stop to it. She wasn’t worth a smile.

The divorce had been finalized that morning. Splitting everything down the middle. It turned out that meant selling off the house.

It was kinda fitting that this would never be his room again.

Leave it to the kid who used to hide his bruises.

He snickered at himself.

‘I should learn to play some emo rock.’

The door creaked open an inch or so.

“Need something?” he asked.

“Just checking in,” Sarah murmured from outside. “I heard the guitar. You’re pretty good with that thing.”

He smiled.

“Thanks.”

A brief pause, then:

“Your dad’s here.”

Casper closed his eyes.

“I thought he was coming later on.”

“He was.” She hesitated for a moment. “He says he has something for you.”

He sighed.

“Great. Even more crap I don’t want.”

Sarah didn’t chide him for the jab. He was glad of that. She understood, on a level. She opened the door a little further, gazing at him through the crack.

“Want me to make him leave?”

“It’s fine.”

“Got everything you want to take?”

“Just this,” he gestured to the guitar. “Everything else feels weird-” he stopped himself as a thought occurred. “Hang on.”

He pushed himself off the bed, then crawled underneath it.

He could feel Sarah watching him from the doorway while he searched, but she said nothing. A minute or so later, he clambered back out, a moth eaten stuffy clutched in one hand.

It was an old thing, slightly tattered; one of its button eyes torn out whoever knew how long ago.

“Think Bex’d mind looking after Mr. Bearford?” he asked, his cheeks a little red. “I owe him a better home.”

A smile.

“She’s Bex. She won’t say no.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. She’s cool like that.” He proffered the stuffy, and Sarah took it. Then, he hefted his guitar and slung it awkwardly against his back.

“Want me to stay up here?” Sarah asked as he stepped past her. “I’m here if you need it.”

“It’s fine,” he murmured. “It’s just dad.”

In spite of the words, he found himself hesitating at the top of the stairs.

It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t anger, either. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to feel anything at all for the old man lately. Just a dull, depressive kind of ache. Every time they spoke, he came away tired.

He took a deep breath, and stepped on down the staircase. Ray was standing by the door with a plastic wrapped box under one arm.

There was something strange about seeing his dad here now; his broad frame a size too large for the confines of the hallway. Once, he’d been imposing. Now, he just seemed big.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hi, Casper.”

“Finally split up with Mom, huh?”

“Guess so.”

Casper opened his mouth to say something snide, but the words didn’t come. He didn’t know what to say.

“Feels weird being back, you know?” he murmured instead, gesturing at the house around them. “I don’t think I like the kid who used to live here.”

His father smiled. “I liked him.”

“You had a funny way of showing it,” came the reply before Casper could think to stop it. He winced. So did Ray. He hadn’t meant it as a jab.

Ray started to apologize. Casper cut him off.

“Why are you here, dad?” he asked. “I didn’t want to see you yet.”

Another apology. Casper didn’t acknowledge it. A moment’s quiet, then his father proffered the box from under his arm.

“Wanted to give you this,” Ray said. “And to say sorry. I feel like I’m doing that a lot today.”

“What for this time?” Casper asked, one eyebrow raised, not approaching to take the box.

The man shrugged.

“You said there’d be no point to coming home if there wasn’t a home to come back to. Then I went and broke it.”

In spite of himself, Casper snickered.

“Splitting up with Mom doesn’t make it broken. Hell, it might be part of how we fix it.”

His father frowned at that, the arm with the box lowering back down. A slight shake of the head.

“Why do you hate her so much?”

Casper leaned against the wall, arms folded, careful not to bump his guitar.

“You still care?” he asked.

“Of course I care,” Ray replied, almost offended. “She’s my wife.” A touch of regret, then he corrected. “Was my wife.”

More uncomfortable quiet.

“She wasn’t the one who hurt you, Casper. I was. Why won’t you let her see you?”

Casper gazed at the ground, his fingers tapping against his arms. It made him angry.

“I’m not that petty, Dad,” he answered eventually. “I get why you hurt me. I get why she wanted you to do it. There’s a big world out there, and if I didn’t have my powers, it’d probably already have stamped me flat. I get why you did it. I might even be able to forgive you for it one day.” He looked up to meet his father’s gaze. “But she lied.”

“But I lied-” Ray began. Casper cut him off.

“It’s not the same,” he said flatly. “You lied by acting like a psycho. Made me think you just went crazy on your family. I thought you were bipolar or something, I dunno. But Mom let me think she was on my side. I hate that.”

Ray didn’t answer that. He spent a dozen or so seconds just gazing at his son, then huffed a breath, and set the box down carefully on the hall table.

“I’ll get out of your hair,” he said tiredly. “Thanks for hearing me out.”

Casper rolled his eyes. “If there’s something you wanna say, say it.”

“Nope,” Ray replied, a small smile on his lips. “I know that look in your eye. Anything I said right now would just sound like I’m defending her. That’s not a trap I’m stepping in today.”

Casper snorted. 

“Would you be defending her, though?” he asked.

“Course I would,” Ray answered. “I owe her that much.” He gave his son another smile, then turned towards the door, tapping the box on the way out. “Enjoy your present. I’m sorry I couldn’t bribe you with it like I promised.”

Casper had just enough time to raise an eyebrow at that, before his father was gone. He approached the box and lifted a corner of the plastic.

Huh.

It was a playstation.

He wrapped it back up again.

Now he felt bad. Great.

“You doing okay?” asked Sarah from the stairs.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He shook his head, and heaved a sigh. “Think James is doing okay?”


James:

James was reading romance stories with his headphones on when the car finally crossed the storm front. With the music playing and his eyes on the phone screen, he struggled to spot the difference. Then, his travel companion prodded him in the shoulder, and his soothing lo-fi was disrupted by one of his headphones being pulled to the side.

“Look alive, Kid. We’ve hit the hot spot.”

James scowled. He still hadn’t forgiven agent Finch for the basketball thing. But, he peeled his eyes from the screen all the same. He looked out the window. Sure enough, it was raining outside. According to the data he’d been given, it had been doing nothing else here for almost a month; a thirty-mile bubble of stormclouds that refused to move or let up with the constant downpour; all centred on some outpost town in Oregon.

It was the perfect test-run for him. A mid-scale magical event, big enough to cause some harm if no-one intervened, but small and isolated enough that it probably wouldn’t make the news if he screwed it up. What was one more crazy cabin guy who said he saw a teenager do magic? Not that it mattered. James didn’t plan on being sloppy.

He gazed out at the deluge, watching how the drops spattered in the vast puddles they’d formed among the treeline. He’d never realized a forest could have a flood.

“You said they had a witness after we set off,” he said. “Any chance I’ll get to talk to him?”

Finch shrugged.

“Not directly,” he replied. “You’ll be in the observation room while I talk to him. You can ask your questions through me, if I think they’re appropriate. There’s no way we can spin a kid working for the feds.”

James nodded at that. It seemed fair enough. He went back to staring out the window.

For ten minutes, neither spoke. He reached up to tug his headphones back into place.

“Wait up,” Finch murmured. “Before you go back to your yaoi fanfic or whatever, I want to know what you plan to do when we get there.”

“… It’s not yaoi,” James muttered, his face reddening.

“Don’t lie to me.” Finch chuckled. “I’ve been looking at the chapter titles.”

‘I hate you so much.’

Cheeks burning, James leaned towards the glove compartment, and fumbled for the fold-out map.

“Okay, fine,” he huffed. “So, my first thing is I want to deal with the lake.” He pointed at the blue blob circling around the town’s north-eastern perimeter. “If it takes on much more water, half the town’s gonna flood. So I figure if I go to the far side, back where it joins up with the nature reserve, I can dig a trench and start diverting the water into this river over here.” He trailed his finger along the map in demonstration. 

Finch grunted, quietly impressed.

“Smart move. What made you think of it?”

“Minecraft.” James shrugged. “After that, I wanna talk to this witness guy before I put a plan down.”

Finch inclined his head. 

“Okay. We can go with that.”

James nodded. Then, after a brief wait in case Finch planned to interrupt again, he went back to his story. He’d been up to chapter three.


Chapter Three: The Hawk and the Silvermane.

Ceros Firewind had known of the Silvermanes for most of his life. They were difficult to avoid, growing up in the outskirts of Mymaeria. They were the protectors of the wall, and among the gallant few who dared ride through the unfound lands. For Ceros, however, it was different. Their young lord, Astra of the platinum hand, had once been his closest friend.

Ceros had not seen him since they were boys, and in that one moment, it was clear just how time had changed him. 

The piercing blue of Astra’s eyes never used to hold such pain-

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Interlude: Waves.

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Sarah:

Sarah Toranaga sat quietly on the couch beside her husband, letting the words and actions flow all around her. A part of her couldn’t think. Another part refused to stop. She was pleading; a low, desperate chant playing over and over inside a mother’s brain.

Not again, she begged. Please, God. Please don’t hurt my son again.

“How did it happen?” Peter asked quietly beside her, his tone less one of rage and more a cold, tired kind of dread. “How did you lose him? He’s my son, Dad. How do you lose a twelve year old boy?”

Hideyoshi’s head was in his hands, the words coming out a little muffled.

“It was a dynamic situation, Peter,” said the older man, his voice a dull monotone. “We told him to stay out of it, but he threw himself in anyway. We didn’t have time to pull him back.” He shook his head. “Binyamin was the only one who had eyes on him when it happened.”

“And he lost him?” Peter asked, incredulous. “Who the hell would even let him out of sigh-”

“James tried to go after the teleporter I was fighting before he could make off with Charlie,” Hideyoshi droned. “The man had an enchanted gun. Binyamin was too busy bending the bullet away from the kid to stop him going through the portal.” He sighed.

“By the time we got there, the thing was already closed. Jacqueline traced it back to an island in Bermuda. Apparently there’s a bridge-scar there leading off-world. She’s already gathering the energy to open it back up. Then we’ll follow them through.”

“Bermuda,” Peter whispered. “They’re with the Whale?”

Sarah’s heart went dead inside her chest. Peter gave her hand a squeeze.

Hideyoshi nodded.

“Looks like it,” he murmured. “…I’m sorry, Peter.”

There was a hollow sounding thud as Peter struck him.

“Don’t you dare,” he snapped. “Don’t you dare be sorry. Being sorry right now means you’ve given up on my son. You can be sorry when we’ve got him back. Until then, we’ve got a job to do.”

After less than a second’s hesitation. Hideyoshi nodded. The pair began to plan.

Sarah wasn’t listening. There was nothing she could add to this. No power, no skills, no history of tactical acumen. She was a sideliner; a supporting role, the one who stayed at home and cared while someone else went out to do the fighting.

And now James was lost. And there was nothing she could do. She hated it.

Peter gave her hand another squeeze. She pulled it from his grip.

The men glanced across at her as she stood. She didn’t look at them.

As she walked towards the hall, she spoke the one thought that she could truly put to words:

“You will not be part of this family until I see my son again,” she said quietly. “However long that takes.”

A momentary quiet, then Hideyoshi inclined his head.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I know.”

The words didn’t help. She left.

She needed to be somewhere quiet. A place where she could rage or yell or throw things. A place where she wasn’t useless.

A place like that didn’t exist right now.

She moved downstairs into the basement. A part of her, a big part, had wanted to go and find her daughter; hold Rebeccah in her arms and remind herself that something, anything she cared about was truly safe. But no. Bex was in her room. She didn’t know about this. She didn’t need to know about this. To see her mother in such pain would only serve to frighten her. Sarah wasn’t about to put that weight on her.

There was a mattress in the basement; a broad futon resting over the frame of a fold-out couch. She made her way to it without bothering to turn on the lights. She tripped on something in the dark. It gave her an excuse to punch the floor.

She found the futon and sat herself upon it.

It was dark here; open and empty; a void with only the distant thrumming of the boiler to remind her she had weight.

She could yell here, just like she wanted. Peter knew better than to bother her. She could shout, rage, tear things and scream until it somehow made James safe again.

Sarah put her head in her hands, and began to cry.

“Just let him be alive,” she begged of no one. “That’s all I need, okay? Just let him be alive so I can hold him again.”

The darkness didn’t answer.

There was an image that had hovered in the back of Sarah’s mind for months, waiting to torment her when everything was calm; the memory of James in his hospital bed, his eyes full of fear and hurt.

The image that came for her now was so much worse. The image of her boy with nothing in his eyes at all. Cold.

Please no.

She clutched her head.

Don’t show me that.

The image came through again, clearer now. The warmth of her child’s skin cooled to coagulated wax. She screwed her eyes shut.

“Stop it.”

The pinkish brown of his cheeks becoming a chalky not-quite-white.

She gagged.

The air felt heavy on her shoulders. A room full. A house full. The vastness of the atmosphere above.

It felt like it was crushing her.

She needed it to move.

She pushed.

Something in the frame beneath her snapped, sturdy pine giving way like a toothpick under stress.

Not enough. She pushed again.

Something rippled out of her through the shadows. She could hear a distant cabinet tearing itself apart.

“Not this,” she moaned. “Not now.”

Somewhere on the landing above, the door clicked closed. There was someone in here with her.

“Leave me alone,” she mumbled.

“Manifesting, huh?” Casper’s voice murmured back. “It’s pretty intense, right?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Just get out. Please?”

A moment’s quiet. Then the sound of something coming to rest against the staircase.

“He’s gonna be okay,” Casper murmured quietly. “You know that, right?”

Sarah took a long, shaky breath, and pulled her hands from her head, resting her chin against her fists.

“What makes you so sure about that?” she asked. “How do you know he’s even still alive?”

Casper chuckled.

“Cuz I hang out with one of the most dangerous dudes on the planet. A guy so dangerous and crazy that he can molest little kids in the middle of New York without anyone trying to stop him.” Casper hesitated there for just for a moment before continuing:

“But a couple days ago, James punched him through a concrete wall. Just for being a creep. That’s how powerful your son is. Trust me. When Peter or Hideyoshi or whoever else you send gets through there, all they’re gonna find is James and Charlie sitting on a beach somewhere, along with a bunch of beat up bad guys.”

Sarah snorted in spite of herself at that.

“Oh, Casper,” she murmured. “I wish that helped.”


Charlie:

The boy was broken. Shattered was the better word, really; his mind fractured into a thousand smaller segments, each of them firing stress neurons and pulses of randomly selected memory across the surface of his brain, none of it really managing to connect.

His eyes were open; currently beyond the reaches of his faculties, or even his own comprehension of muscle control. Some disconnected part of him vaguely registered a star-scape up above, but there wasn’t an emotion to attach it to, so it held as little meaning as the memories.

Whatever small, infantile fragment of the boy there was that was still trying vainly to collect himself, clawing half-heartedly at the forgotten remnants of a being he could only guess at, was aware that the thing which broke him had been vast. So much so that even the faint memory of it sent tingles of something not-quite-pain shooting down his side.

He was tired. So very tired. But he had forgotten how to sleep.

That was when the thing beneath the water found him.

Its presence was subtle, at first, like the tide; a gentle ebb and flow of water slowly building around the splintered fragments of his mind. A broken window in a puddle. He wouldn’t have noticed it at all, but for how it eased the screaming in his soul. It grew quiet. He could hear himself think again.

Who am I?

The presence had no answer for him. Rather, if it had an answer, it wasn’t something he could presently understand. The response it gave was low and deep, like a thrumming just beyond his hearing.

The boy who had once been Charlie did his best to shrug. The answer didn’t matter anyway. At least the world was quiet now.

Around the many pieces of himself, the water began to flow, like a trickling at the bottom of a bathtub; a single shard of glass drifting lightly in the current. He watched it move inside himself; idly curious. Was that shard the price he had to pay for the absence of the pain? He accepted that. It wasn’t as if the piece had any value.

The trickle bore his fragment on, winding through the wreckage of his psyche, before apparently reaching its destination. His shard slid up alongside another; this one bigger; its edges jagged and wrong. The fragment found a place where its edges aligned with the other, and without a sound, it slotted into place.

It was like a lightning strike had smacked into his brain.

His eyes were open. Right. Of course. How had he not noticed that before? There were stars above him; thousands of them.

He didn’t have much of an opinion on that yet. For all that this newfound shard had given him perception, he still had no idea where lay any of his thoughts. What was he supposed to think of stars?

The water moved again, the trickle shifting to another tiny portion of himself, and slowly pushing it into place within his mind. The boy wasn’t bothered. The water could do what it wanted so long as it stilled the pain.

There was a certain comfort to be found in being numb.

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Care: 6.8

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James:

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

The movies had been wrong. Wizard training sucked.

He opened his eyes.

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

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

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

“I am calm,” he replied, annoyed.

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

Traitor.

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

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

Casper stuck out his tongue.

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

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

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

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

Hideyoshi chuckled, the sound a tad bitter. 

“Why don’t I belie-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

It was Casper who responded first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper groaned.

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

Tsuru shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

James looked to his grandmother. She smiled.

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

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

“… Winter,” he admitted.

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

“And you?” James asked.

Casper shrugged.

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

“Liar,” Tsuru muttered. “How?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess I did kinda cheat.”

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

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

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

He took a breath, and closed his eyes.

Right.

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

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

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

Okay. Obvious stuff first. I was raped.

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

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

Some small part of him snickered.

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

James scowled.

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

Somewhere inside him, his inner critic rolled his eyes.

Then why are you scared of liking guys?

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

Cuz it hurt. Duh.

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

James rolled his eyes for real this time.

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

… You sure about that?

“Yeah,” James groaned. “Pretty sure.”

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

I’m not asking anyone. Ever.

… Yeah. Fair enough.

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

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

I am not.

Yes you are.

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

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

The inner James shook his head.

You’re pretty gay, dude.

Since when?

Inner James smiled.

Since Charlie.

… Shut up.

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

James went slightly red.

Did not.

His inner self was laughing now.

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

His cheeks began to burn.

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

His inner self laughed even harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper sighed.

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

Tsuru nodded.

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

“A little trust’d be cool, James.”

James groaned.

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

James shook his head.

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

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

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

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

Binyamin nodded.

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

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

He focused.

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

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

In spite of everything, the image made him smile.

“Okay,” he murmured. “Found it.”

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

James raised an eyebrow at that.

“Okay, sure. How do I do that?”

A quiet chuckle.

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

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

Ok. So far, so good.

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

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

A broad grin, then his own reply.

“Lead singer of Pentatonix.”

James chuckled at that, then shook himself.

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

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

The rape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kept going.

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

“… I think I got it. What now?”

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

“Uptown Funk,” said James.

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

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

“Totally,” James replied.

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

James jumped slightly when his phone rang. 

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

“It’s fine.”

James pulled out his phone, and checked the screen.

He didn’t recognize the number.

He sighed.

This better not be a scam.

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

“Hello?” he asked.

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

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

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

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Care: 6.6

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James:

“I don’t give a damn if I need bed rest,” Hideyoshi Toranaga growled. “I am going to track that woman down and end her.”

“Of course you are, dear,” Tsuru murmured. “Are you comfortable like that, or would you like me to get you another pillow?”

“… Don’t patronize me, woman.”

“You need crutches, dear.” She moved to his bedside, and began pouring out a pot of tea.

Hideyoshi shot a hateful glance at the foam and metal crutches against his wall and let out a groan.

“Don’t remind me. Those things make me feel old.”

“We’ve been old for centuries,” Tsuru murmured, still focused on the tea.

“Well, it didn’t feel that way before.”

James allowed his gaze to flit between his grandparents as they spoke, one eyebrow raised. How were they both so calm right now? Jiji had nearly died.

He nearly jumped as Casper leaned over his shoulder to whisper in his ear:

“It’s all in Japanese. What are they saying?”

“They’re being weird about death,” he muttered back. “Baba’s teasing him about being old.”

“Makes sense,” the older boy replied. “They’re both freaking the hell out; trying to calm each other down.”

“They’re freaking out?” James asked. “They’re acting super calm, tho.”

“Yup.”

“… I kinda wish I had your powers.”

“Stop your muttering, you two,” Tsuru said sharply, her words reverting to English. “It’s rude with other people in the room.”

“I don’t speak Japanese.” Casper pointed out.

“Don’t get fresh with me, Casper. What are you boys here for?”

The boys looked at one another. James shrugged.

“Jiji said he was gonna train me, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Tsuru murmured. “What of it?”

“Was that gonna include, like, combat magic and stuff?”

Tsuru glanced towards her husband, who gave James a nod.

“That’s the idea, yes. Why, did you want to get Casper in on it too?”

“Yeah,” James admitted. “… Also… I wanna start today. Like. Right now.”

His grandmother snorted.

“Eager, are you? So was Peter. Well. Your grandfather’s still a little too out of it for now, but I can certainly give you boys some pointe-”

“No,” Hideyoshi grunted. “Not a chance.”

James scowled at his grandfather. So did Tsuru.

“I know it’s not my turn, Yoshi,” she muttered. “But it’s not as if I’ll be keeping them forever.”

“I’m not that petty, Tsuru,” Hideyoshi snapped. “Think about what he’s done in the last two months. He hides things, he plots, and when his friends get in trouble, he tries to handle it himself-” he shot a glance at James then. “-I’m very proud of you for that, by the way-” He looked back at his wife, her own expression now contemplative. “Ask yourself the chances of him running off half cocked to save his friend if you start teaching him the basics.”

Tsuru thought for a moment, then nodded, and looked back at her grandson, arms crossed, expression neutral.

Internally, James cussed with all the vitriol he could summon.

Heck!

“Oh, thank God,” muttered Casper from behind James’ back. “These guys actually know you. Yeah. He’s totally planning that.”

James turned around at that, appalled at his friend’s sudden betrayal.

“Hey, no fair!” he said, making no effort to hide the hurt in his tone. “I’m not Tasha! I think about this stuff!”

Casper just looked at him at that.

“I got a text from Father,” he said flatly. “He told me he thinks you’re adorable. And he says you punched him through a wall.”

Behind him, James heard Hideyoshi choking on his tea. He shot the other boy a glare, then turned back to his grandparents. Tsuru was already shaking her head, her expression stern. His grandfather was still coughing.

“Okay,” he tried. “I know this sounds bad, but I can explain-”

“The answer’s no, young man,” Tsuru replied. “Don’t make me tell Peter about this.”

“Son of a flip,” James muttered. “Look, I thought it through, okay? I was there two hours before he got there, just to make sure I had a big attack charged up in case he tried anything. And I knew he wouldn’t touch me if he-”

“You’re not helping your case here,” Tsuru growled.

It was at that point when James gave up the last of his composure.

“But he was trying to screw my friend!” he shouted. “What was I supposed to do!?”

The room was quiet for a moment then, before Hideyoshi sighed.

“No one here can answer that for you, James,” he murmured. “Youth and inexperience aside, you’re one of the strongest mages on the planet. You have people you want to protect, and the power to see it done.” He shook his head. “But you’re still a kid, and you’re messing with forces far too big for you. We’re your grandparents. We love you. We refuse to let you throw yourself to the wolves.”

For a second, James just stood there, hands balled into fists. He wasn’t dumb. He knew all of this. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to let it lie. His gaze dropped to the floor.

“You said you’d let me make my own mistakes,” he muttered.

“I also said I’d save you when I had to,” Hideyoshi answered. “This woman fought Tsuru, Caleb and myself all on the same night; while Caleb was empowered with your energy, no less. Even considering what she was up against, she managed to knock two of us out cold. You are not to go anywhere near her.”

James continued staring at the ground, allowing the words to wash over him. There had to be something he could say. He had to make them understand.

“He likes him,” said Casper. James looked around, his grandparents following his gaze. His friend looked back at him, eyes querying, asking permission. James thought about it for a moment, then gave a resigned shrug. They’d have to find out some time. Casper nodded, opened his mouth, then stopped when James shook his head.

“I’ll do it,” he muttered. He turned towards his grandparents, still not looking at them. “It’s the kid they took; Charlie… He’s not just my friend, okay?… I like him.”

A momentary silence, then another sigh from his grandpa.

“I see.”

“… Promise you won’t tell dad?”

“It’s not ours to tell,” Tsuru’s voice replied.

James took a deep breath, then forced himself to look at his grandparents, his cheeks still a little red.

“I wanna save him.”

Tsuru shook her head.

“You’re too close to this,” she answered. “Even if you were fully trained. Emotion gets in the way, and you have a lot of emotions on your mind. It’d make you reckless. You’d make mistakes.” James opened his mouth. She forestalled him with a hand. “But I can see where you’re coming from. You deserve to know what’s going on. We captured six of their operatives the night that they took Charlie. Those operatives are currently being interrogated by some of the most efficient specialists America has to offer.”

She was gazing at him now. Not hostile, but stern. He hesitated, then nodded for her to continue.

“It wasn’t just Charlie who got taken. We’ve been getting reports of people vanishing from their beds in at least three other cities outside the country. This has become an international matter. Interpol is currently coordinating between the United States and half the police departments in Europe, trying to find out who these people are, and where the hell they came from.”

She took a deep breath, then continued.

“Hideyoshi and I are well aware that this is going to be a sizeable fight. We have reached out to some friends of ours in Egypt and Japan, and those friends are already on their way to the U.S.” She paused for a moment there, her gaze steady with James’ own. “The moment we can find a lead on where these people are, Charlie’s mother will create a portal to extract him. Then, we shall lay into his captors with all the fury we possess. I promise, James; everything that can be done is being done.”

“… There’s gotta be something I can do,” James muttered. “Even if it’s just giving my powers away again… I don’t wanna be useless again.”

Hideyoshi answered before Tsuru could.

“You’re not useless,” he grunted. “I know this feels like a loss because your-” he searched around a moment for the right word. “-friend is gone, but the truth of the matter is that your involvement put Tsuru and myself on the scene. In doing that, you rescued all the other children that woman was trying to take from New York. You allowed the capture of those six enemy officers, and your energy allowed Caleb to break free of his chains with only a collection of broken bones to show for it, even rescuing two of his fellows in the process. The things we gained from that encounter will likely be what allows us to save Charlie in the end. You helped, James.”

James took his grandfather’s words and tried to absorb them, weighing them as best he could against the pain in his gut.

“… This sucks,” he muttered, wiping his nose against his sleeve.

The four of them lapsed into a somber sort of quiet. Casper gave his hand a squeeze.

Stupid radar brain, he thought, squeezing back.

Eventually, Tsuru broke the quiet with a sigh.

“I want the two of you back here tomorrow morning for your first lesson,” she muttered. “No combat magic until after this is done, but we can at least get you started on the initial meditations. As for you,” she turned to Casper. “I don’t know who exactly taught you what you know thus far, but I’ll be teaching you a variant of the shield spell; something to protect your body and mind since you’re apparently so hell-bent on spending time with Father.” She considered for a moment. “James too. For my own peace of mi-”

She was interrupted by James’ form colliding with her chest.

“Thank you!” he crowed, giving his grandmother the tightest hug he could manage. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

Tsuru snorted.

“Don’t thank me, squirt. We both know if I didn’t give you something, you’d have run off to find another teacher. I just didn’t want you running loose with Caleb’s fire glove spell.”

James got halfway through a laugh, before the image hit his brain of himself hovering above the city, his arms wreathed in emerald fire. He went very still.

“… That’d be so freakin’ cool.”

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Care: 6.4

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Casper:

Casper didn’t know exactly what he had been expecting. But it hadn’t been silence.

They’d agreed to meet up at a bowling alley, the idea spurred along by some bitter recollection of a happy family moment. Something they both enjoyed. That was the idea, at least.

For the moment, they were seated in the alley’s diner, a partially walled off space within the rest of the larger complex, differentiated only by a slightly stronger smell of grease. Plastic tables, plastic tablecloths; some acne covered teenager manning the snack counter, looking just as enthused as Casper felt; most of his attention focused on his iPod, earphones in.

His father had ordered a serving of fries. Those fries now sat between them, untouched. Neither had spoken in half an hour. Casper sat there, arms crossed, and gazed evenly into his dad’s face, counting the minutes until Ray made eye contact.

He hadn’t wanted this. James had talked him into it. The boy told him he was dumb for hanging out with a pedo just because he was angry with his folks. He’d tried to disagree. Tried to explain why it was more complicated than that. He hadn’t managed to come up with an argument.

Ray opened his mouth. Casper raised an eyebrow. Ray closed his mouth. Casper rolled his eyes.

“It saved my life, you know,” he muttered. His dad finally looked up at him as he spoke. “What you did. It helped me move when the elves attacked. It helped me stay myself when Father tried to take me. It even let me help a friend when she got herself in trouble. What you did to me helped. It sucked; but it helped.” He picked up a french fry. It hung, limp and cold between his fingers. He dropped it back in the basket. “So why am I still so angry.”

His father didn’t answer. As much as Casper tried not to care, he couldn’t help but notice how bad he looked. His hair was matted, his skin grey; a day or more of stubble sitting along his jaw. For the moment, he was glad he’d sat far enough away to avoid his father’s emotions. He didn’t want to know how the man felt right now.

Ray Sullivan gazed blankly at his son for a while, then began to speak.

“I think your mom and I are splitting up,” he murmured. There was nothing there inside his voice. “We had a fight last night. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”

Casper opened his mouth, his intent to say something cold. The words didn’t come.

“… I’m sorry to hear that.” He was surprised to find he actually meant it. “Is it because of me?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply. “She still thinks what we did to you was worth it.” Ray shifted his gaze up to the ceiling. “… I can’t anymore.”

Casper raised an eyebrow at that, curious in spite of himself.

“What changed?”

“Peter told us what’s been going on,” Ray droned. “Nearly getting taken by the elves. Nearly getting taken by Father. Your mother thinks it’s like you said. Your powers kept you safe. Maybe she needs to think that. I don’t know. I tried to agree with her. Wanted to be on the same side. But every time I try to think that way, I remember how it felt to see you crying, and my head starts screaming that all the danger you were in was on a path we chased you into.” He let out a single, listless chuckle. “It reminds me how badly we failed you.”

Casper scowled. It was odd to hear a thing like that from his dad. Satisfying wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and aggravating.

“If you could go back,” he asked. “Back to when I was nine, and do it all right the first time; scare me so much that you wouldn’t have to do it again. Would you do it?”

Ray shrugged.

“I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I’d have said yes, but-” he shook his head. “God, I don’t think I have the energy anymore. It sounds awful of me to say, but you have no idea how much it hurt to see you sca-.”

“Scared?” Casper snapped, suddenly incensed. “Oh, I know. That’s the thing you don’t get. You wanna know what my power is?” he tapped his head. “I’m an empath. Every single time you hit me after I manifested, I could tell exactly how bad you felt. I knew how empty Mom felt when you hit her.” He laughed, high and angry. “That’s the only reason I stayed with you as long as I did. Because I couldn’t get my head around why you’d be doing it if you felt that way. Then, one night, I come home, and I hear you fighting, and I figure it out. And all I can say about it is fuck you.” He watched as his father buried his head in his hands. “Fuck everything about you.”

When he’d finished saying his piece, Casper was fuming; emotion feeding on itself like a fire inside his skull. He watched his dad sit there, hands still pressed against his face, and wished he could tell if he was crying. Just to see if it made a difference. Ray’s breaths were heavy, slow. Not quite tears, if he had to guess. Too tired. Just Processing.

It was like that for a minute, at least.

When Ray finally spoke, there was nothing left in his tone. Not even exhaustion. He was just flat.

“Are you ever coming home?” he asked.

“What home?” Casper spat. His dad flinched. He sighed. “… Is there even anything for me to come back to now?”

After a long pause, Ray shook his head. It was that moment, in the end, when his father finally cried. He rested his elbows against the table, smushed his palms against his eyes, and began to moan; just these, low, wracking sobs. It was pathetic. It was gross. Casper couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

He pushed himself up out of his chair, rubberized feet skidding along oily tiles, and walked away.

“I can’t watch this,” he said behind himself. “I’m going bowling. Come find me when you pull it together.”

He stepped out past the plastic wall, and into the main area. It was almost empty, just three or four groups scattered amongst the lanes. A pair of teenagers were on an obvious date about a third of the way down, a cluster of kids and adults that bore the look of some kind of school group gathered at the opposite end, and in the middle, James and Sarah, here to supervise, just in case.

Neither of them commented as he placed himself on one of the seats, waiting to join the next game. James cocked an eyebrow at him, his expression curious. Casper shook his head. No further conversation needed.

They were partway into the next game when Ray finally re-emerged, his eyes dry, if a little puffy. Casper paid him no real heed. It was his turn. He just focused on lining up his shot.

“Hey,” Ray murmured quietly as he closed in.

“Hey,” Casper replied, uncaring.

“Sorry about that,” his father murmured. “Just-” he let out a humorless chuckle. “Just dealing with the fact that the people I love most in this world both hate me and want me to find somewhere quiet to die.”

Casper frowned. That… That stung.

“Not funny, Dad,” he muttered reproachfully.

Ray shook his head.

“Look,” he sighed. “I’m trying my hardest here, okay?”

Casper bit back the instinct to say something snide.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay.” He went back to lining up his shot, tuning out the sounds of Ray and Sarah’s perfunctory exchange of greetings. He took his go and watched, uncaring, as the ball rolled true, straight for the centre of the pins. This was followed by a momentary annoyance as the ball swerved off the track at the last second, one pin falling over, seemingly of its own accord. He shot a suspicious glance at James. The younger boy stuck out his tongue. He chuckled. 

Little cheater.

He sat down beside the other boy, eyes forward. He felt James’ hand give his own a squeeze, an unspoken care echoing silently through his friend’s head. Then James got up to take his shot, followed only a second or so later by Ray taking his place on the bench, a tired malaise radiating from his surface thoughts like an armor made of sad. Casper tried to block it out and, for a moment, was surprised that it seemed to work, the feeling fading fractionally inside his head, second by second. Then he realised. His dad was simply comforted, just by sitting there beside him.

Casper sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to come back yet. I still get angry when I think of you. I don’t know if that will go away.” He braced himself for another wave of sadness from his dad, but it never came. Ray just nodded quietly, accepting it. Casper shook his head. “But even if I forgave you, It’s not like I’d want to come back if I know you’re both like this,” he gestured broadly at his father’s dishevelled state. “Seriously, Dad. You look like crap.”

Ray chuckled.

“I haven’t slept in three days.”

Casper rolled his eyes.

“The point,” he continued. “Is that there has to be a home for me to come back to. You’ve gotta be worth it, you know?”

In spite of himself, Ray snickered.

“And here I was thinking we could just offer to buy you a playstation.”

Casper grinned.

“Well. I mean. That wouldn’t hurt.”

Once again, they sat quietly. It was Casper’s turn to bowl. He didn’t move.

“So,” he said eventually. “You heard about my stuff with Father?”

A quiet dread rose up inside Ray’s skull.

“Yeah. I heard.”

Casper nodded.

“So, what do you think?”

His dad let out a dry laugh.

“Am I even allowed to have an opinion on that right now?”

“No,” Casper admitted. “So… What do you think?”

“Honestly?” Ray shook his head. “It scares the shit out of me.”

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