Hunt: 8.9

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James made landfall at the mouth of the sunken cave, the stick his grandmother had given him clutched in an ever so slightly trembling hand.

This was a dumb idea. Just a really, really, really dumb idea.

He took a deep breath, held it in his lungs for a moment, then let it out.

Just treat it like a person. Easy. Do it.

“Um. Hello?” He called, his voice somewhat muted by the downpour. “Are you in there? I’m sorry for blasting you, even though you totally deserved it.”

No response.


Maybe it wasn’t home? James shook the idea from his head. He’d followed the trail left behind as it had fled, right back to where he had first encountered it. It had to be here. He took a breath, and tried again.

“Mr. Wondercat? You in there? I wanna talk. You know, like adults?”

Again, no response.

James heaved a sigh.

“Ok. Well… Just keep ignoring me for like, five minutes, kay? I gotta set up this magic circle thing.”

He looked around at that. The ground around the cave mouth was hard, all jutting rocks and tide pools. Not many places to draw a decent magic circle. Eventually, his eyes alighted on a patch of moss, not yet washed from the bank by the constant rain. That would do.

He pulled his grandma’s phone from his pocket, and checked the picture she’d shown him.

Looks easy enough to copy down… Okay.

With a confidence he was at this point, a shade too tired to really feel, he stepped forward and knelt down in the moss. Then, he began scraping out glyph-work with the end of his stick. It took a while, and by the end, his knees were soaked; but if it let him talk to the spirit, then he would deal.

He sat down in the wet, crossed his legs, and charged the spell. He’d never cast this one before. It took time, and no small amount of effort, pushing at the barriers around his mind; unable to even make them budge. Then, just as his grandmother had said they would, the symbols on the floor began to glow.

Nothing happened.

He checked the backs of his hands; one of them still covered by the temporary housing for the creature from the lake, and waited. 

This was taking way too long. More than that, though, it was draining him of too much power. Every second the spell went on, his reserves shrank a little further; depleted all too fast by this unfamiliar enchantment.

Just a little more, he told himself. You gotta trust Baba. She always pulls through.

That was when the backs of his hands began to glow.

It was small, at first, the faintest specks of blue beneath his skin. Then, as the glyphs around him began to fade, the lights in his hands grew stronger, expanding out until it almost touched the bases of his wrists and knuckles. The enchantment was done. His power ceased to ebb. 

… Okay. So. How’s this supposed to help me, Baba? 

He still didn’t feel any different. Nothing to do but test it out, he supposed.

“Ready or not, Spirit guy. Here I come.”


The entity abandoned its physical form only a short way from the cave mouth. The diminutive creature’s final attack had burned deep, searing pain into the very structure of the guardian’s makeshift body. With that pain had come yet more fear.

They had hurt it again, and the thing above still sought it. The guardian no longer felt surprise. The bipeds were cruel; not even willing to let it run away.

The guardian had acquiesced. What else was there to do? It left its form behind, and fled back to the deep and dark. 

It sat now in the depths, spectral once more, left to nurse its wounds.

The pain was the least of those injuries, though. It was the wound to its pride that truly stung. Ousted from its home. Brought low by that first dull hunter; left to search in fevered fear for whoever knew how long, and just as all hope was set aside, they had sent a mere cub to lay it low.

Pride. The Guardian was not used to being challenged. Even less familiar in all of its unfathomable lifespan than the feeling of physical pain.

The Guardian felt that self same cub make landing up above, a scrap of its wooden body clenched inside his fist as he mewled out his challenge in an unfamiliar tongue.

Yet another insult? The spirit bore it without emotion, shrinking deeper into the cave. It would not push this fight. The bipeds were not worth it. There would be no retaliation unless the cub pushed into its home.

Another high-pitched challenge from above. Were the bipeds truly so aggressive in their youth? The Guardian sank down as far as it could go. 

A hundred breaths, maybe more, before the cub gave a final challenge, and stepped forth into the depths.

The Guardian breathed deeply of the water.

So be it. The bipeds could war, and hurt and scratch at it as they liked. It would survive, however battered. But they would not oust it from its refuge.

Not again.

The cub drifted slowly downward through the cave as the spirit began gathering the tide about it as a cloak, his navigation limited by the pale light emitted by the tiny lantern in his paw. He was less than halfway down by the time his adversary had readied itself for war.

The cub would learn a lesson in respect before his end. The Guardian would make sure of that.

It was as he descended past the midpoint that the spirit made its move, shifting invisible through rock and tide, moving behind him, quiet. In the gathered mass of water, it brought forth its strongest incarnation; the form most suitable for war.

There was something new about the cub this time. A faint light about the backs of his palms. Some new enchantment? No way to know for certain. Best be careful. The cub drifted further down, and it approached; ready to strike.

Trepidation. Uncertainty. Quiet determination.

The spirit jerked back. Those emotions had not come from its own mind. The cub yelped, darting away in the water as it spun around to bring its forelimbs to bear.

So that was what it had been. Some kind of sensor; there to alert the cub to enemies behind him. Clever.

The spirit bared its tide-formed teeth, allowing the glow of its soul to once more permeate the water.

In the fresh light, the cub looked terrified, back pressed against the far wall, one paw flexing unconsciously as if to comfort itself through motion. He was right to be frightened. The spirit wasn’t done.

It prowled toward its cornered foe, blocking the cub’s escape through bulk alone. Why had he come down into the water when distance had been all that saved him in the past? The cub was foolish, he raised a forelimb as if to ward it off, palm flat, fingers splayed. The same stance he had taken before firing that bolt into its shoulder. The Guardian couldn’t help but flinch, its advance halting in spite of itself. It was unused to fear.

No lightning came. Not for the space of several breaths. Then, tentatively, the cub drifted forwards.


Please don’t hurt me. Mr. Wondercat. I’m not gonna blast you. I promise-

The spirit growled as he drew closer, its green-tinged form looming vast before him in the water. He did not want to fight this thing again. He stopped his motion. Growling meant stop. He didn’t need a spell to tell him that.

There had been a moment, when he’d felt its mind brush against his own.

Anger, hurt, sorrow; a depth of wounded pride.

He felt maybe a little bad about that.

For a moment, they simply hung there, facing one another in the gloom, unmoving.

It was gazing at his hand, raised in desperate placation. When he tried to move it, the creature flinched.

It’s scared of my hand? Oh. Right. Cuz I beat it up.

Very slowly. Very, very carefully, he shifted his outstretched arm, lifting the other one to match, holding them out to either side, as unthreatening as he could be.

I’m not gonna fire punch you. No more lightning bolts, I promise. Not unless you make me. Please be chill.

He held for a few moments, then, slowly drifted forwards.

The spirit’s lips drew back, baring its jaws, each tooth the size of James’ hand. It was bigger than ever now. Even so, it made no move to stop him.

He felt it as whatever enchantment his grandmother had given him took effect once more. He felt the spirit’s mind brush against his own.

Rage and fear, balanced in equal measure. Only a hair’s breadth from attacking him. He tried not to take it personally. He took a breath.

It’s a spirit, he reminded himself. The most important thing is being sincere.

No doubt it could feel in his mind too. He did what he could, looking inside himself, and focusing as hard as he could manage on the slight guilt inside his chest. It wasn’t much, but it was as sincere as he could be.

‘I’m sorry that I hurt you.’

The response was only half of what he’d hoped for. First, the spirit shifted, momentarily losing that tension about its frame; anger now touched by a note of surprise. For a second, James thought it had worked, before the creature struck at him, one massive forepaw sweeping through the water, too fast for him to dodge, sending him spinning through the water, his shields flaring.

He righted himself just in time to hear the creature snarl.


It surged forwards then, pressing that empathic bubble back together; forcing him back against the wall; forcing its mind against his own. It was better at this than him, thoughts and images springing into his mind from a place entirely beyond himself.

Pain. Isolation. Grief. The fear of being hunted. Images of himself and Finch. Oppression.

It raised a paw against his chest, pinned his back against the wall, and roared.

‘Your fault!’

By his own admission, James was not a perfect being. He had faults. He had a temper. More than either of those, however, he had a little sister, with whom he often argued.

He didn’t like being blamed for things that other people did.

For a brief moment, it was as if a hurricane had slipped beneath the water. One second, James was pinned firmly to the wall, a giant monster screaming at him like an angry toddler. The next, he was bound in wind. 

‘My fault?’

The spirit tried and failed to hold its place against him as the bubble of air expanded to fill the space around himself, scrabbling for purchase as the pressure pushed it back across the cavern. When his body finished forming, he filled almost half the space; twice again as large as the spirit was. 

It saw his centre; that glowing mass that constituted his biggest weakness in this form, and lunged for it.

‘Uh uh. Not happening.’

The monster yelped as his hands took hold, one wrapping firm around its head, the other pressing it hard against the ground, legs struggling to keep it upright.

He brought himself in close, and, with all the petulant anger he could summon, thought of its jaws wrapping hard around his foot.

‘You started this.’

The spirit yowled and roared, struggling in his grip as he made his point. This was absolutely not what his grandmother had told him he should do. Well, screw it. Four times, this thing had attacked him now. He wasn’t going to take that lying down. He brought forth his memory of Cody, barely protected from the rushing water as the spirit tried to crush them.

‘You started it every time.’

The spirit tried to struggle free, but this time, it was James who roared.

When he was done, the thing lay still. Cowed. Point made. He could feel resentment bubbling in its skin. He didn’t care.

He let the spirit go, and reverted to his human form as it found its feet, glowering down at him like the world’s most intimidating four year old.

He took a second to force himself to calm, then let out a burst of bubbles in a subaquatic sigh.

He’d made his point. If having a sister had taught him anything, it was that now was the time for a peace offering. 

He moved close enough for their minds to once more touch, and, as earnestly as he was able, conjured a memory of something nice. He made the offer.

The spirit let out a low growl, followed by a huff.

Resignation and despondency.

‘Sure. Whatever.’

James smiled. This was progress. He’d take it. He retrieved his grandmother’s phone from where it lay, and returned to the entrance of the cave. The water level sat a good deal lower now.

When he hit air, he dialled in a number.

One ring. Two. Three.

“Hello?” Cody asked on the other end.

“Hey, Cody,” James replied, his smile growing a little wider. “Look, I kind of need a favor-”

“James!” Cody yelped. “Are you okay? What happened to you? Are you safe!?”

James just chuckled tiredly at that.

“Yeah. I’m okay. Stuff got heavy, but I think I’ve made a breakthrough. I kinda need your help now, though.”

“Anything,” Cody answered without hesitation, his voice hard. “Say the word and I’m there.”

“Awesome. I’m at the cave where the spirit tried to kill us. Can you bring me some hot cocoa?”

“… What?”

James shrugged.

“Y’know, enough to share.”

Previous Chapter:

Hunt: 8.7

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

In the Reserve:

The creatures were small; some of the scuttling rodents that seemed ever present in the underbrush of the forest, not driven out by the perpetual rain as some had been. Far from it, in fact. These ones seemed to thrive. The Guardian watched with interest.

They were stout little things, their tails replaced by a broad, thick flipper that they used to navigate the now abundant water. It was a whole family of them, the Guardian noted, working in concert, some dragging short logs towards a tiny island in a freshly flooded pond, while others collected stones for the foundation.

They were building themselves a bastion, as the bipeds did. The Guardian could not fault them for it; they really were quite small.

Industrious creatures.

One of them was chewing at the base of a tree, tearing away chunks in tiny increments to weaken its foundation. It was nearly halfway through.

The Guardian was curious, so it brought a paw into being from amidst the water, pressing it against the trunk.

A little pressure, then a snapping sound. The rodent skittered for safety as the tree collapsed. Then, its fellows began working at the branches, stripping them off as some combination of sustenance and building fodder.

The Guardian found it satisfying. For a while, it chased away the fear.

This whole place was wrong. Unfamiliar.

The Guardian was not used to unfamiliarity. It was frightening. Leagues upon leagues of fertile land, and not a single known thing to be found.

Where was home?

For days, it had searched; weeks, roaming the land for the welcome boughs of its home, first in confusion, then in desperation. Finally, the search had, in pain, turned to finding anything at all that felt like home.

Where was home?

That was when it had begun to weep.

Its thoughts turned then from the morose to the embittered. The hunters had come next; the grown one weak, yet skilled enough to leave it hurting, the other small, yet mountainous. Their presence had been enough to drive it into the woods. But that had not been enough for them. They had sought it out. Determined to oust it yet further from its home.

No. It would not stand. Could not. The Guardian had already lost too much. It would not be assaulted here as well.

It left the rodents to their work, and turned towards the biped settlement. Even now, it could feel the power radiating from the smaller of its hunters, seeping out across the land like a lake about to flood.

It would not be prey.


Finch lowered the phone from his ear, and glanced across at James.

“Right. That’s the lumber mill shut off. Who next?”

James glanced at his laptop screen.

“Uh. Right. Looks like… Wildfire prevention team clearing out some fire lines up north. It’s a pretty long way outside the rain, but-”

“But it’s still worth shutting down while we figure this thing out,” Finch agreed. “Have we got a number for them?”

James shook his head.

“Just the main office.”

“That works. Give it here.”

James read out the number, then switched back over to his social media while Finch made the call.

There was a new message from Cody.

‘Wanna go see a movie? There’s a cinema at the edge of town.’

James grinned.

‘Yeah. I wanna. I’m still working, tho.’

Cody sent him a frowny face. He snickered. Finch raised an eyebrow from across the room, but he ignored it.

They’d been working at all of this for two days, first hunched over their respective laptops while they researched the area, brainstormed problems, and tried to lay out every single thing that might be pissing the forest spirit off, before then going through the numbers for each like a miniature call centre.

The room had started to smell faintly of coffee and delivery pizza.

‘Can’t you sneak out?’ Cody asked.

James rolled his eyes.

‘I’m being graded on this stuff. I can’t sneak out the back just cuz I have a date-’

A spoken word from Finch interrupted him before he could press send:

“Something funny?”

James glanced up at the older man, and shrugged.

“Just Cody being a dork. He wants me to sneak out for a movie date.”

“Sure. Go for it.”

“Wait, what?” James asked, surprised. “But we’ve still got stuff to do here-”

“No we don’t,” Finch replied. “We’ve done your bit. The research is done. The calls are gonna take hours, and you can’t help, cuz you’re a kid. Just give me the list of numbers and go hang out with your boyfriend.”

James went a little red.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” he muttered, unsure as to why. “We’ve only been on one-”

“Don’t care,” Finch grunted. “Just go before I change my mind. Boredom loves company.”

James was coming dangerously close to liking the older man. He decided not to push his luck.

“Thanks, Finch,” he said, a little awkward, before returning his attention to his laptop and holding a victorious finger down on the backspace.

‘Finch says I can go,’ he sent.

A few moments’ wait for a response, before:

‘Dude. You suck at sneaking out.’

It was the weakest excuse for a cinema James had ever seen.

The place was tiny.


He was used to the cinema attached to the mall back home. The one with twelve different viewing theatres and a candy bar that needed four whole people to keep it running.

This was just a snack shop wedged between a pair of oversized living rooms, staffed by a lone teenager who was reading a comic with her headphones on.

Experimentally, James took a packet of skittles from one of the standing racks and slipped it into his pocket.

The teenager flipped to the next page of her comic.

… Right.

He returned the stolen skittles to their proper place.

There was a jingle from the door.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Cody asked, carrying a pair of 7/11 slushies that he wasn’t even remotely bothering to hide and shaking rainwater from his hair. “Looks like a slow day. Got the whole place to ourselves.”

“One day, I am going to show you what a city’s like.”

Cody took the comment on the chin and grinned.

“I’d like that.” He gestured at the wall. “So, what are we watching?”

That was another way in which this cinema apparently differed from real ones. It didn’t do movie showings, or even new releases. Instead, there were several racks of DVDs with price tags on them.

Apparently, the place doubled as a rental store.

“I dunno.” James shrugged, ambling over to examine the shelves. “Superhero movie? There’s nothing new.” 

Cody shrugged. 

“Yeah. We don’t get new movies here till you can buy them on dvd.”

“Right…” James thought for a few seconds, before plucking a case from the shelf. “How ‘bout this one?”

Cody glanced over his shoulder at the box.

“Batman?” he asked.

“Yeah. I missed this one cuz Bex wasn’t old enough to go with.”

“Okay, that works.” Cody grinned. “Better than a crappy romance movie.”

He trotted off to set it up while James lingered behind to buy skittles.

On following after the other boy, James again had to marvel at how tiny it all really was. He doubted the room could sit much more than forty people. Instead of the wide, high ceilinged cinema boxes he was used to, this place had the feel of a repurposed lounge room, an oversized projector screen dangling from a far wall.

He watched Cody fiddling with a dvd player at the back. He found a seat over where Cody had left the slushies, and soon enough, the other boy joined him, tv remote in hand.



Cody pushed a button on the remote, and with an audibly distressed hum, the projector came to life.

James slipped a hand under the seat divide, trying to locate Cody’s own without looking down. It took a few tries. They held hands.

“This is the one where he fights Mecha Penguin, right?” Cody asked.

James tried to think back to the ads.

“I think so,” he murmured. Then, he grinned. “Or the one where Bane gets force lightning.”

“Nah,” Cody replied with a snicker, not missing a beat. “That was the last one. I remember cuz Alfred had to stop him with the chaos emeralds.”

James snorted.

“Hah. You’re funny.”

“Damn right I am,” Cody agreed, raising the remote and pressing play.

That was when the far wall let out a loud crunch, the black gloss paint splitting apart in a long fissure, a plume of brick dust puffing out across the nearby seats.

“What the heck?” James asked, just as Cody muttered something similar, their gazes turning toward the fractured wall. He raised a shield on general principle, then pushed out of his seat, silently gesturing for Cody to get back.

The other boy didn’t need telling twice.

The wall crunched again, a few feet closer to him. James shifted a careful few steps forward, slipping out into the lane between each row of chairs, and edging quietly towards the fissure.

There was a quiet, animal growl from the other side.


He took to the air, darting backwards just as the theatre wall caved in, the familiar form of the nature spirit crashing through it by the shoulder, not quite as huge, this time, but still larger than anything else in the reserve; not water anymore, but wood.

The moment it caught sight of him, it lunged.

He dodged sideways in the air with a yelp, his shield sparking violently as its jaws closed hard around his foot.

“Nope!” he shot a blast of wind into its face, that succeeded only in ruffling its hair. A dozen or so yards to the side, Cody yelled, tossing a fallen brick at the spirit’s form. It didn’t even seem to notice.

The spirit growled, then bit down harder.

There was a shriek like metal on glass, then James’ shield cracked. He felt a tooth scrape a thin cut into the skin above his ankle. He screamed.

A dip into his spellbook, a whimpered word, and his right arm burst into cobalt flames. He clenched his stomach, tugged with his leg, and punched it in the face with all the minimal strength that he could muster.


His fist sank half an inch into the wood before the creature finally recoiled, yowling loud, batting at the fire about its skull with its oaken formed front paws, one of his sneakers still stuck between its teeth.

James shot a panicked glance towards his foot. He was bleeding, a thin trail of red slowly staining into the fabric of his sock. That was way too close. 

Thanks, Caleb.

He returned his gaze to the spirit, catching Cody in the periphery, hanging close to the exit, his expression panicked.

The spirit was prowling now. Circling him; chairs crunching into plastic chunks beneath its bulk; cautious, angry.

James bared his teeth.

“That hurt, you dick!”

He shouldn’t have swore.

In response, the spirit only snarled.

This was bad. It was in town. Why was it in town? They were going to be seen. He forced himself to think.

“You okay, Cody?” he called, his voice shaking.

“Fuck that,” Cody called back, his voice panicked. “Are you okay?!”

“I’m fine,” he replied, eyes still fixed on the creature. They were lucky. The cinema was at the very edge of Rockford town. The treeline wasn’t that far from the broken wall. It was possible the spirit hadn’t been spotted yet. That was the hope, at least. “I need you to lock the door, then go out through the hole in the wall. Tell Finch what’s going on. He’ll know what to do.”

“… What are you gonna do?”

The spirit stopped its pacing. Lowering itself towards the ground, wood-formed muscles pulling taut along its frame. Out of time.


For the first time in weeks, James Toranaga pushed his power out.

The spirit lunged, feet digging in ruined carpet and the metal anchors of the seats. James shifted sideways, felt its jaws clench tight around his arm as it bore him to the ground.

Then, he no longer had an arm to bite. He was windbound now.

The spirit was big, this new incarnation easily half again the size of Finch’s car.

He’d punched bigger.

The spirit’s snarling reflexively redoubled as he wrapped a titan hand around it’s bulk. Then it became a yelp as he launched it back towards the forest like a shotput.

He spared a glance behind him towards a dumbstruck Cody.

“Lock the door. Find Finch,” he repeated, before scooping up his clothes, and rushing for the trees as fast as he could go.

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Hunt: 8.6

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By the time they arrived at the far shore of Rockford lake, both James and Cody were breathing heavily. It had turned out that, in spite of being a magically superpowered monster-detective, James really wasn’t much of a runner. Maybe it was just that his legs were shorter. Cody had wound up half-dragging the other boy most of the way through the woods. 

The boys hit the edge of the forest at a sprint, breaking the treeline with their heels digging in the ground, stopping just short of falling face first in the lake.

“What the fuck was that thing?” Cody asked, his breathing heavy. “It was huge!”

“I don’t know!” James panted, taking a moment to catch his breath, his hands against his knees, before heaving himself upright and scanning the treeline for signs of movement. “I-I mean, it was some kind of spirit or something, but since when are there angry spirits in the middle of freaking Oregon!?”

Cody didn’t answer. Nothing from the trees. He hadn’t had much of a chance to look behind him as they ran, but the sounds of the fight had faded into the distance only a couple minutes after their escape. Still no sign of Finch.

“… Is he gonna be okay?”

“I don’t know,” James muttered, sounding almost guilty. “The most important thing was getting you outta the danger-zone.” He glanced in the direction of the town, a few of the rooftops barely visible in the distance through the rain. “You should be safe from here. I need you to head back to the diner. I’m gonna go help F-”


There was a distant pop, before agent Finch hit the surface of the lake with a loud splash and a muffled curse.

“… Or not.”

The two watched as the bedraggled man broke the surface, then looked around. Both boys winced on instinct. The man had a slash running down the side of his face, from just above his eye, all the way to his cheek.

The man looked around, spotted the two of them and, with a groan, started paddling his way to shore. A few seconds later, he was spread out on the rocks, his clothes ragged, skin bloody.

“Good job, Cody,” Finch murmured, his eyes closed. “You led us right to it.”

“Uh. You’re welcome,” Cody answered uncertainly. “You uh… You doing okay, sir?”

Finch responded with a low groan.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I just need a minute.”

The boys watched in awkward silence for a minute as Finch caught his breath, then, he sighed.

“Why the fuck is there an angry spirit in the middle of Oregon, and what is our next move?”

“I got nothing,” James admitted. “I mean, it’s Oregon. You can’t get much more nature-ey than this without leaving the U.S. It’s not like there’s anyone tearing up the reserve, right?”

He looked to Finch for confirmation. The older man shook his head.

“Nothing like that in the reports. I can do a deeper check now that we’ve got some idea of what to look for. There’s gotta be something.”

“Um,” Cody piped up, glancing between the other two, the adrenal afterglow fading to a level of confusion. “Not for nothing… Do we care? Like. I get that it’s probably pissed about something, but why does that matter when it’s an angry water monster that wants to flood my town?”

The other two looked at him, then James sighed, shrugged, and plopped himself down in a puddle, raising another of those air bubbles to shield them from the rain while he explained.

“Spirits are weird,” he began. “They’re kind of borderline immortal. They don’t have bodies, so you can’t normally hurt ‘em unless your magic’s super funky. That means when they go postal, you have to choose between figuring out how to calm them down, or trying to catch them like a spazzed out pokemon. The first one’s hard. The second one’s basically impossible unless you’re my grandma.”

He shrugged.

“Figuring out why it’s angry’s the easiest way to make it go away.”

Cody nodded. That made sense.

A few seconds of silence while the group thought.

“We have a lumber mill,” Cody suggested. “Maybe it’s pissed we’re making so much firewood?”

James made a noncommittal noise.

“I mean, maybe, but hasn’t that place been going for years?”

“Couple decades, yeah.”

James nodded.

“So, probably not that. We’re looking for something that started in the last couple months.”

“Not necessarily,” Finch murmured, pulling himself to his feet with a quiet groan. “Spirits can be slow. They often move around in their chosen domain. They might take years to notice something they don’t like. Or maybe it just decided it’s not okay with it anymore. We can’t rule anything out.”

James nodded, opening his mouth to continue, before Finch sighed.

“We should have this conversation later. Once I’ve got myself patched up. I’m heading back to the motel. Come join me once you’re done here, yeah? We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Uh, sure,” James muttered, a little wrong-footed. “I guess that works.”

Finch hadn’t waited for the answer, already turning and setting off around the lake’s perimeter towards the town, slightly favoring his left leg. He glanced back at Cody as he took his leave. “Thanks for your help, Cody,” he said. “You saved us a lot of trouble.”

“… Did I just get kicked out of this?” Cody asked.

James laughed, a little awkward.

“I think you did, yeah. We’re at the dangerous part now. Sorry.”

Cody tried not to feel too put out at that. He only partly managed it.

“I guess the date’s ruined, huh?” he murmured, half-joking, half-bitter.

James smiled.

“I dunno. I had some fun.” He glanced behind himself at the agent’s retreating back, hesitated for a moment, then proffered a hand, his cheeks a little red. “Can I walk you home?”

Cody grinned.

“I’d like that.”

It wasn’t a long walk home, only half a mile or so, first moving to the townward side of the lake, then over the pair of crosswalks that made up the entire breadth of Rockford township. Cody made sure to drag his feet as best he could. James’ hand was very warm in the chill of the rain.

They didn’t talk all that much. A few words. A part of Cody was annoyed at that. He ought to be making better use of his time in the other boy’s company. He was just too comfortable, the inconsequential chatter fading out under the constant rain.

It was only when they reached his house, approaching around the back so as to avoid being seen by his parents in the diner, that Cody asked a question he deemed important. Both boys stood there for a time, leaned against the wall, still holding hands, neither wanting to admit that they’d run out of steps to walk.

“That was fucking terrifying,” he murmured. James glanced up at him at that, face turning away from the perpetual spattering of a nearby puddle, one eyebrow raised. “Back at the cave, I mean. Have you dealt with shit like that before?”

James chuckled.

“Couple times, yeah. It’s usually bigger than that, though. You kinda get used to it after a while.”

Cody turned that thought over in his mind a couple times, then shook his head.

“How do you get used to being attacked by giant monsters?”

A quiet snicker.

“No idea. You just kinda wake up after a while and all the fear’s a little quieter. Still there, but easier to ignore, you know?” he chuckled ruefully, his gaze returning to the ground. “I had a pretty heavy couple months after I got my powers.”

Cody had no response to that. What were you supposed to say when your first date started talking like a Vietnam vet? He gave the shorter boy’s hand a little squeeze. Opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Can I kiss you?” James asked, his voice a little small. Cody looked at him. His eyes were still determinedly pointed at the ground, a faint blush partly hidden by the waterlogged scruff of his hair. “I know it wasn’t a great first date, but you’re really cute and I sorta want to try again and-” he took a breath. “… I wanna see what kissing’s like when it’s not with your best friend.”

Cody’s heart beat suddenly felt a touch louder against his ribs.

“Sure,” he said, doing his best to sound casual. “I’m down for that.”

James nodded, then awkwardly rotated himself, one shoulder leaning against the wall, facing Cody. After a few seconds, the two of them locked eyes, the younger boy trying not to make it obvious as he shifted upwards against the wall, standing on the tips of his toes.

Even then, he was half an inch too short. Cody bent down a little.

Contact. Surprisingly soft. Not quite on the lips. One second. Two seconds. They broke away. James broke eye contact, his cheeks crimson. Cody grinned.

“Feels kinda weird.”

James tilted his head away to hide a smile.

“Yeah. Little bit. See you later, Cody.”

“Bye, James.”

Cody watched the other boy leave before he stepped inside.

It was odd, he thought to himself as he pulled out a dry set of clothes. Even after the rain, he felt extremely warm.


James couldn’t help but smile a little as he made the journey back to the motel. He’d been half expecting to feel guilty, especially if he actually wound up enjoying it, but no. Instead, there was just a sort of afterglow.

The kiss had been cool. He hadn’t been sure if he’d be able to muster the courage.

It was nice; being okay with it all after the fact. Hopeful. He liked hopeful.

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Hunt: 8.5

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James did have to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Finch was a decent chaperone. The older man had thus far hung back from the younger two by a few dozen feet as Cody led them through the woods; holding to that sweet spot that was just far enough away for their conversation to be muffled by the rain, while still remaining close enough to communicate with relative ease.

“You’ve really never been on a date before?” James asked.

Cody shook his head.

“There’s no-one around to do it with. I’m kinda surprised you have.”

James shrugged.

“Only kinda,” he murmured. “It was s’posed to be a date, but we mostly just ended up hanging out.”

“Was he cute?”

“Sure, I guess.” James shrugged. “It was a friend of mine: Casper. He’s bi, and I was trying to figure out where I was with being gay. I thought I had a crush on him. So I figured I’d ask him out.”

Cody nodded.

“How’d that go?”

James smiled.

“Not bad. He was cool about it, you know? We hung out, watched a movie. Held hands. Never went on a second one.”

“… Why not?”

James snickered.

“We tried making out after,” he explained. “It was awkward.

“… Huh.”

The semi-date was turning out more fun than James had been expecting, himself and Cody simply talking about nothing while they walked, protected from the rain by a pocket of stable air that he was holding overhead. At one point, the older boy had grabbed his hand.

That was a nice kind of weird.

“So…” Cody asked eventually, guiding them through a patch of waterlogged brambles that James could have comfortably navigated on his own. “You still into this guy, or…?”

James smiled.

“Casper? Nah.”

He felt Cody give his hand a little squeeze; watched him fail to hide a smile.

“Why not? Is he super dorky? Big teeth? Kinda fugly?”

“No,” James smirked. “He’s… Actually pretty hot, I guess. I just know him too well. Guy has problems.

Cody snickered, rounding the top of the incline and pointing the trio down a path beside a rocky outcropping.

“We’re heading down that way,” he called, just loud enough for Finch to hear him too. “There’s usually a cave down there, but all the rain’s flooded it, so it’s hard to spot.” A few moments of silence as the three of them reoriented, then the boy spoke again. “So… This Casper dude’s not your kind of deal. Do you have… You know…”

“A type?” James asked, grinning. “Sure, I guess. Why? You curious?”

“Maybe,” Cody admitted. “So… What is it?”

“I dunno,” he murmured playfully. “A little taller than me? Maybe kinda buff?”

“I’m kinda buff,” Cody pointed out.

“Oh, yeah,” James said, as if he’d only just noticed. “I guess you are. How about you?”

Cody grinned. Good. He understood the game.

“Short,” he answered. “Asian. Kinda cute, in a twinky, Orlando Bloom sorta way-”

The rest of that sentence was lost when James started poking him aggressively in the ribs.

“I. Am. Not. A. Twink.”

Cody laughed far harder than was sensible at that. James might have forgiven it, if he couldn’t also hear Finch chuckling quietly behind them.

“I’m not!” he protested.

“Sure you’re not,” Cody grinned. “You’re super buff. Tall, too.”

“Shut up. Is that the cave?”

“That?” Cody pointed. “That’s a puddle. The cave’s just past those trees over there-”

James let the protective barrier drop as he took his leave, dousing his erstwhile companion in half an inch or so of collected rainwater as he floated off in the direction Cody had pointed.

He felt no guilt at this. The other boy deserved it.

He found the cave mouth soon enough, a rocky outcropping among the moss and wood, drowned, just as Cody had said it would be, in half a dozen feet of rainwater that expanded out across the clearing like a pond. He wondered how deep it went.

Well. No time like the present.

He floated out over the gently rippling surface of the water, glanced behind him to where the other two were just cresting the last rise towards him, then plunged into the depths.

He didn’t bother taking air. He wasn’t exactly sure when he’d given up the need to breathe, but it was apparently redundant when you were mostly made of wind. The pressure tried to push him upwards, his minuscule bodyweight propelling him towards the surface like a weirdly shaped pool noodle, but he used his flight to keep himself travelling down.

It got dark fast in the cave. He pulled out his phone, offering silent thanks to whoever had invented waterproof cases, and turned on the flashlight.

There wasn’t much to see. Just rocks and a slow decline. The device buzzed in his hand; a text alert from Finch: a reminder not to dig too far today, and a snapshot of a somewhat rain-drenched Cody.

He snickered. Finch could be cool. Sometimes.

The guy had a point, though. Better not to explore too deep with a civilian in tow. He wouldn’t have gone in at all if Cody wasn’t being a tool. He took one more look around by the phone-light.

Rocks. Rocks. Lost car-keys. Rocks. Weird Glowy green thing-

He reinforced his barrier just in time to prevent himself from being crushed against the cavern wall.

The creature -the force- that slammed into him then had the countenance of a beast, four legged and loping, green-tinged fur shifting through the water like a coat of floating ink. When it struck him, its form breaking into strands of light and shade around him and casting his shield into crackling lines of force, he could have sworn he heard a growl.

Then, he was left alone, floating in the faintly glowing water.

Right. He thought to himself. Nature spirit. Frick.


“Is he gonna be okay down there?” Cody asked, trying to keep the note of concern from his voice.

Finch gave him a reassuring shoulder pat.

“Don’t worry, kid. I wouldn’t say it to his face, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything in Oregon that could take him in a straight up fight. Myself included.”


Finch chuckled.

“Yep. Kid is crazy strong.”

“… Was I teasing him too hard?”

“If you want him to be into you, then yeah,” Finch murmured, taking a step or two away and beginning to move around the water’s edge. “Maybe tell him you’re sorry for that later-”

There was a loud sploshing noise as James shot from the surface of the water like a cannonball, eyes wild. Beneath him, the water’s surface had begun to move.

“James,” Finch started. “What-”

“Cody!” James yelled, spotting the other boy. “Crap!”

Before anyone could reply to that, James darted forwards in the air, his drenched form slamming into the larger boy’s chest like a teddy from a butane gun. His arms wrapped around Cody’s middle, the air shimmering white around them for a moment, before the water at James’ back slammed into them with the fury of a storm.

It was a torrent, an assault; like being under an angry waterfall, the force of it bearing them to the ground, blasting moss and lichen from the stone around them. Cody didn’t scream, but that was mostly out of shock. He did yelp a little, though, his arms rising up by instinct to shield his face from a flow of water that never quite seemed to hit; James’ barrier cracking a little further by the moment.

Among the noise of the water and the steadily rising cracks from their rapidly degrading shield, Cody could have sworn he heard James mumbling against his chest.

“Please don’t break please don’t break please don’t break!”

The barrage lasted all of seven terrifying seconds, before its assault abruptly ended. There was a deep yell as something passed violently overhead, the water breaking into a swarm of wind-borne droplets as Finch slammed his powers into it. Then, he was on his knees beside them.

“Right. Nature spirit. Fuck,” he murmured, his voice steady. “Are you two okay?”

“We gotta get Cody out of here,” James answered, nowhere near as calm. “Right now!”

Cody could only nod in mute agreement to that. He doubted he could have spoken if he wanted to. It felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe.

Finch nodded, shot a glance behind himself at the pool, a strange green light hovering, shapeless amidst the droplets, then looked back at them, his expression hard.

“Head for the lake,” he ordered. “I’ll try and draw it deeper into the reserve. Protect the town until I get back. Call for reinforcements if I don’t.”

James looked like he wanted to object, but he kept his peace. A glance at Cody seemed to set his mind. He nodded, pulling himself upright as Finch darted off around the edge of the water, the green glow slowly dipping back beneath the surface of the pool.

Cody pulled himself to his feet, trying to pretend he wasn’t shaking. The smaller boy jammed a hand into Cody’s own, lacing their fingers together. That settled him a little. A flicker in the air; another shield built around them.

“Whatever happens,” James muttered. “You keep on holding on to me, okay? I’ll keep you safe.”

“Right,” Cody managed, still feeling oddly short on air. He watched as the thing in the water began to rise, pulling itself from the pool like a figure from a block of clay.

It had a form now, it’s physicality caught somewhere between a housecat and a bear, all loping grace and elegance, but layered with a mass of bulk and muscle. It was also twenty feet wide across the shoulders, and made entirely out of water.

It didn’t turn to look at Finch when the boys began to run. Not even when he sent a bolt of power crashing through its frame. It set its gaze on them, lowered itself into a crouch, and growled.

James raised a hand toward it just as it began to spring, and a wave of unseen force thrummed into it from the side, visible only in the way the raindrops changed directions as it passed. The water-beast let out a furious yowling noise as its body was slammed into the rocky walls of the pool with a force to make mountains shake.

“We should keep runnin-” James started, before the haste of the older boy’s departure nearly yanked him off his feet. “-okay, this works.”

Leaving Finch and the furious monster in their wake, the two boys began to sprint.

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Hunt: 8.4

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All in all, Cody took the knowledge of there being monsters in the world relatively well. That didn’t mean the silence that resulted wasn’t awkward. James tried to give him some time to get used to the idea, pulling out his phone and dialing Finch’s number.

Two rings. Three rings-

“Hi, James,” Finch murmured. “What’s up?”

“I caught the lake thing,” he said. “I’m putting it somewhere safe while I figure out what to do with it. Figured you’d wanna know.”

A brief hesitation on Finch’s side of the line, then:

“Were you seen?”

“No, no,” James half-lied, his tone a mite too casual. “… I mean, there was one guy who probably saw it, but it was kind of attacking him before I even got here, so…”

“Right,” Finch murmured. “And you’re sure no one else saw? It’s a big lake, James. Lots of angles to be seen from.”

“We were below the surface,” he replied. “Kinda hard to spot when you’re under forty feet of water.”

“Is the witness okay?”

“Yeah. Some kinda mage, I think. He was doing practice underwater when it started chasing him.”

“Who is it?”

“That kid from the diner.”

“The one who was macking on you?”

James glanced back at Cody, his cheeks a little pink. He couldn’t help but notice that his prior assessment had been wrong. The guy was pretty ripped without a shirt.

“… Yeah, him.”

Finch snickered on the other end of the line.

“Good luck with that. I’m on my way.”

He hung up.

James pocketed his phone.

Right. Okay. That was that done. Now he just had to find some way of getting the creature out of the lake without alerting everyone in Rockford of what was happening. He had a few ideas.

Then he just had to handle Cody. Great.

He took a deep breath.

“… Okay, so, promise you won’t be mad at me,” he tried. “But I maybe kinda lied a little bit. This,-” he gestured at the monster. “-isn’t really Bigfoot.”

The punchline fell about as flat with Cody as was possible. The boy gazed up at him from his position on the soaked-silt floor.

“No shit, James.”

James winced. Okay. Ouch.

An uncomfortably long silence, then:

“… So what is it?”

James shrugged, glancing briefly over his shoulder at the webbed humanoid still scrabbling at its bubble.

“No idea. Maybe a grindylow? A redcap? A kappa that’s lost its shell? There’s like, a hundred different kinds of water monsters. I haven’t got ‘em memorized. Probably just got washed into the lake by all the rain.”

Cody swallowed.

“So there’s more of them out there?” he asked, his voice just a little shaky.

James didn’t bother trying to lie. It’d probably do more harm than good at this point.

“Oh, yeah. Loads. I mean, it’s a wildlife reserve. Where else are they gonna live?”

“Anywhere that isn’t where I live!” Cody snapped. James adjusted his assessment. The other boy might be taking this kinda badly. “And who the fuck are you, huh!? Some random kid and an asshole in a suit, trying to act all cool while you bend the fucking water!”

“Hey!” James protested, ruffled. “Don’t call me a kid! I’m thirteen. And a half!”

“I don’t give a crap!” Cody yelled. “You’re a kid, James! Your shirt has a fucking Gundam on it!”

James let out an aggravated groan.

“Would you please. Stop. Swearing?”

At that, Cody simply stared at him. James glared back as forcefully as he could manage. It undercut him a bit when Cody started giggling.


“… Stop it,” he muttered. Cody laughed even harder. “I’m serious.”

The other boy rolled onto his back, clutching at his knees as he cackled himself senseless.

… Well, you have fun with that.

He turned his attention back to the water beast. It shied away from him as he approached, resting his hand against the surface of the bubble, before pushing it through into the water.

It attacked him, claws scrabbling and snatching at the skin of his hand and wrist, his shield sparking faintly beneath the blows. He let his fingers rest against its chest.

It hadn’t hurt anybody yet, he told himself. It was just scared because it couldn’t find its home. He smiled at it.

“I’m gonna put you somewhere safe, okay?” he murmured. “Try not to fight too hard.”

He dug into his spellbook, humming the intro to Uptown Funk to help him focus while he tracked down the magic he was after.

He muttered a few words under his breath, and inside its bubble, the lake monster began to glow, a soft, tourmaline light flowing out from around his fingertips. Soon, the entire creature was encased within his energy. Then, with a deal more effort than he was proud of, he began to pull it in, the monster slowly shrinking down about his fingers, before discorporating, and flowing as lines of light across his skin.

When the glow of the spell began to fade, it left behind an intricate web of faintly aquatic seeming inkwork spreading from the tips of his fingers and all the way up along his arm. He imagined this was what Pokemon training felt like.

He checked under his shirt, curious to see exactly how much of him the familiar spell was covering. Quite a lot, as it turned out, the seaweed and vine-like decorations of his forearm slowly fading into a sheen of fish-scales that went almost to his belly.

“Dude, I look freaking rad,” he muttered. He turned to Cody. Noticing now that the boy was no longer laughing. “What do you think? Tattoos or no tattoos? Pretty sure I’m now officially a badass.”

In response, Cody simply gazed at him.

“… What the hell is with you people?”

“You know, we weren’t really lying all that much,” James muttered, spearing a piece of breakfast bacon with his fork, and pairing it with a chunk of pancake. “Finch said he was working for the government when we got here. He just didn’t bother saying that I was too.”

“That’s because you aren’t,” Finch pointed out from the next table over. He’d insisted on being present on the off chance that James said something wrong. “Not yet.” He turned his gaze to Cody. “He’s working with me on a trial basis. Taking the lead under my supervision. Like a driving test.”

“Sure, fine,” James muttered. “Point is, we said we were here to deal with the monster problem, and we are. I don’t get what you’re so upset about.” He popped the fork into his mouth. “These pancakes are awesome.” He gave Cody’s mom a thumbs up as she passed the table, earning himself a smile.

Cody glared at him for a moment, before glancing at Finch, and letting out a sigh.

“Does he have to be here for this?”

“Yes,” replied Finch before James could answer.

Cody scowled at the table.

“… It’s not fair, okay?”

“What?” James asked, one eyebrow raised.

Cody didn’t look at him, his expression darkening.

“Magic was my thing, okay? It was mine. I wasn’t gonna have a bunch of friends. I’m not gonna get a boyfriend at least until I get to college. But I can do this.” He held up the plastic box he’d been clutching since the lake. “And then some random prettyboy waltzes in from the city to show me just how bad I suck.”

James… didn’t know what to say to that. It was a lot to unpack.

“… You think I’m pretty?” he asked.

Cody groaned. “Is that really the thing you focus on?”

“Well, I mean, what am I supposed to say to the other stuff?” he asked, giving the other boy a helpless kind of shrug. “I’m sorry I saved your life?”

“No,” Cody groaned. “That makes me sound like a dick. Thank you for that. Honestly. I’m really glad you saved my life… But did you have to be so much better than me while you did it?”

James leaned back in his seat, stung, and not a hundred percent sure as to why.

“I’m not better than you,” he said, a little defensive.

Cody laughed. “Dude, you turned a lake monster into a fucking sleeve tattoo. I can’t do that.”

“And I can’t make boxes that let you breathe underwater,” James countered. “That doesn’t make me better. I’m just better in a fight.”

“Fine,” Cody muttered. “You’re stronger than me. Happy?”

James honestly didn’t know what to say to that. It hurt a touch more than he was comfortable with.

“Don’t compare yourself to me that way,” he muttered. “It’s not fair to you or me.”

“Why not?” Cody grumbled. “You’re my age. You’re a mage. Why shouldn’t I measure up to you?”

“… Cuz you’re never gonna be as strong as me.”

He said the words fully expecting to regret them. He said them anyway. They were the truth.

Cody folded his arms.

“See?” he said quietly. “That’s the problem.”

James sat there for a minute, gazing at the other boy in something that felt a lot like anger. Then, another point occurred to him.

He pushed the barely touched plate of pancakes to the side, and leaned forward on the table, one arm extended.

“Arm wrestle me.”

“What?” Cody asked. “What’s that got to-”

“Just do it,” he said flatly.

A moment’s scowling, then Cody leaned forward, one arm resting on the table, his hand clasping James’ own.

“Three,” James muttered. “Two, one. Go.” He pushed against Cody’s hand as hard as he could. His arm was flat against the table in under a second.

“Again,” he said.

Cody raised an eyebrow, but complied.

“Three, two, one. Go.” Another almost instantaneous loss.

Cody looked irritated now.

“You could at least push back a little harder before you let me win.”

“I am,” James said bluntly. “I’m pushing as hard as I can. That’s how weak I am. Wanna go again?”

Cody groaned.

“Come on, dude. No one’s that weak-”

“I am,” said James. “Ever since I got my powers, I’ve been weaker than my own kid sister. It’s been like that for a year now. She’s six.”

Cody opened his mouth, James cut him off.

“See that plate?” he gestured to his pancakes. “It’s honestly kinda hard for me to lift. It’s a freakin’ plate. When I go to school, I have to use my powers just so I can carry my bag around. I can’t even go to gym class anymore. I had to get a doctors’ note saying I had a bone disorder. If I ever get in a fight, I’m screwed. What am I s’posed to do? Use my superpowers to stop a bully? If I ever go out with anyone, I’m gonna have to accept that they’re always, always, always gonna be stronger than me. Even if I worked out six hours every day.” He leaned back in his seat again, arms folding once more. “Sure. I’ve got bigger superpowers than you. You kinda have to take what you get.”

The two scowled at one another for a time, before the older boy relented.

“Okay, okay. Fine. I was being an ass. I’m sorry.”

James nodded.

“It’s fine,” he muttered. Then, a point of frustration floated back to him. “You really think I’m pretty?”

James wasn’t fixating.

He really wasn’t. He was just glaring into the motel room mirror as if it had personally wronged him. That was not fixating.

“I’m not pretty,” he muttered. “I’m manly. Stupid, angsty, whiney little-” He stopped messing with his hair, giving up on trying to find a way to make it any more unkempt than it already was. He stomped over to his travel case, and started rummaging inside it. “Come on. I know you’re- Yes!”

He stood back up, the article of clothing he’d been looking for clutched between his hands, the vinyl skull leering back at him from the t-shirt’s front.


He tugged his shirt off, and put the new one on, before returning to the mirror. He examined the result. Yes. The jeans and shirt paired well. He could do to show a little more of the tattoo, though. He tried rolling the sleeves up to show his shoulders. Looked himself over.

Yes. He was now sufficiently manly. Good. Cody had better not make that mistake aga-

There was a knock at the door.

“Hey, James?” called Cody’s voice from outside. “Are you in? Mrs Green told me this was your room. Can I come in? It’s really wet out here.”

Perfect timing.

James squared his shoulders.

He gets one chance to fix this. One.

“Just a second!”

He made one last check in the mirror. Yes. His outfit was still there.

He stepped over to the door, and pulled it open.

“Hey-” Cody started, before James cut him off.

“How do I look?”

Cody blinked, rain sploshing gently on his hair.


“You heard me,” James snapped. “How do I look? Easy question. No wrong answer.”

Cody looked him up and down, a bit nonplussed.

“Uh. Really cute, I guess. I like the cuddly emo look. Why, though?”

God damn it.

James’ shoulders slumped.

“… What do you want, Cody?”

Cody shook his head, perplexed, but continued.

“Look, you said you were trying to find whatever’s causing all the rain, yeah?”

James shrugged.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, what if it’s not in town?” Cody asked. He fumbled in a pocket for his phone, stepping a foot or so inside the doorway to show James the screen. “It’s a rain map of the last couple weeks. And if you look at the one for today, the middle of it isn’t in Rockford anymore. It’s in the reserve.”

James peered at the screen.

“… Huh,” he murmured. “Yeah. You’re right. It’s like, half a mile out of town. Guess it moved right after me and Finch showed up. That’s an awesome lead. Thank yo-”

“I could take you out there, if you want,” Cody offered. “I go out there all the time when it’s not raining. I know where all the caves and landmarks are.”

“… You get that I’m hunting a monster, right?”

Cody shrugged.

“Yeah. But I can stay back if we find whatever’s doing it.”

James snickered. “Dude. You’re a kid. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m older than you!”

James snickered even harder. “Okay. Tell you what. There’s a baseball bat in the closet. I think the last guy left it here before I got the room. If you can hurt me with it even a little bit, I’ll let you come along.”

“What?!” Cody blanched. “No! I’m not gonna hit you with a baseball bat!”

James smirked.

“I can make forcefields, Cody. You couldn’t hurt me if you wanted to. You’re too squishy.”

Cody scowled.

“Come on, dude. It’s not like I’m gonna go near whatever the monster is. I’m just gonna show you where the paths are and how to get to places. Then you can go back later and explore it all yourself.”

James hesitated. That was… actually a lot more reasonable.

“You sure?” he asked. “It might still be kinda dangerous. Even if you’ve got me there looking out for you.”

Cody grinned.

“Yeah. I’m sure. I’ve got all day free tomorrow. Wanna do it then?”

James shrugged.

“I mean, sure, I guess. Head out after breakfast?”

“Sounds good.” Cody nodded, then, with a touch of hesitation. “So… It’s a date, then?”

Something clicked in James’ head.

“Oh!” he realized. “Right. That’s what this is. Uh-” he laughed, a bit higher pitched than normal. “You, uh. You kinda made a bad call on that.”

“What?” Cody asked, his shoulders slumping. “You mean you’re straight?”

“No,” James muttered, awkwardly scratching at his hair. “It’s just. Well. We’re going looking for monsters, and you totally can’t protect yourself… We’re gonna be taking Finch along.”

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