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.
“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?”
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?”
“Okay. First Father, now you. How does everyone know who my secret magic teacher is?”
“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.
“Like, an hour or two, I think? I didn’t have a phone on me.”
“Liar,” Tsuru muttered. “How?”
“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.
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.’
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.
Inner James smiled.
… Shut up.
Remember when you were playing cards? His other self asked. You totally wanted to smooch him.
James went slightly red.
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.”
“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?”
Casper turned to leave. On his way out, he gave a parting comment.
“A little trust’d be cool, James.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
James pulled out his phone, and checked the screen.
He didn’t recognize the number.
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!”