Tide: 7.5

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James:

James had, as it happened, been correct. His instincts had led him true. His splitting of the ocean had found just the right spot to pinpoint both his targets; Charlie and the beast now both floundering on the seabed.

He had found them, even if his titan’s arms were already shaking from the weight of the water pressing against his form. Even if Charlie spared him little more than a glare as he clambered to his feet, before returning his attention to his captor. He’d still found them.

He could still hope. 

It was huge. Swollen. Inches of ichorous oil sitting thick over skin that could have been either leather or foetid scale. Fins the width of football posts flared wide along a trio of tendrils, each themselves like elongated train cars, flailing in its efforts to swim through the empty air. 

He felt a moment’s satisfaction there, marred when Charlie clambered up beside it and pressed his shoulder to its centre mass, heaving with all his might to push it back towards the surf.

The thing was big.

He was bigger.

He could do this. Maybe even fight it; drag it up onto the shoreline and hold it there until the sun, the air, or its own crushing weight brought it to its end.

He could win.

“Give. Him. Back.”

Charlie wasn’t listening. The boy didn’t even bother to turn around.

The Whale did, though. Its two side tendrils heaved against the silt to twist its centre skywards. A single bloodshot eye glared up at him.

James forced himself to smile at it.

Then it drove a spike into his brain.

It was the strangest feeling, having his coherence stripped away; like pain, but carried by sight and sound and smell. The world grew dark and clammy; not that he any longer cared to note the difference.

If he’d remembered how, he would have screamed.

His arms went limp. The water walls began to give, a billion tonnes of surf breaking into first geysers, then floods, ready to sink his quarry to the depths.

His titan form failed.

He lacked the capacity to care. 

He was in the abyss now; nothing to see or hear in all the world.

Except it’s jaws upon his soul.

His life was saved by a flash of light that burned a line of fire through the sky, before coming to a halt a yard or two away from him. In some distant recess of himself, he thought it might be Jeremy the firebird.

It hung there briefly; a point of flame, smaller than a candle.

First, it swelled.

Then it warped.

Something white-hot streaked from it towards the creature’s centre mass, the bolt striking just as the water rose back up to coat the beast. For a moment, the water fizzed where it had struck, the bolt reduced to a pale glow beneath the surf. Then it exploded. 

The monster screamed.

The world lost its thorns.

Clarity returned itself with surprising haste. James shuddered.

‘Okay. That sucked.’

James turned his gaze toward the fire, half expecting to now owe his life to a random bird. Instead, he found a finely featured boy hanging in the air before him, built of solid flame.

“Get back, James,” said the fire boy, not looking at him. “Right now.”

“Who-” James tried.

The world snapped out. 

For one moment, he hung suspended in the void, his mind trying to acclimate to the sensation of being everywhere at once.

Then the world snapped back.

He was on a beach.

He spluttered.

“What?!”

A hand clamped down on his scalp. He yelped, turned to strike-

-His grandmother pulled him into a hug.

“You are in so much trouble,” she said, her voice catching. 

He hugged her back. It was a reflex. Why was he shaking?

“Baba! Charlie’s-” he gagged. “Charlie-”

“I know,” she said, gently prying him off of her and standing upright. “We’re dealing with it. You stay here, okay?”

James began to protest. His head snapped to the side. His cheek stung.

That took a second for him to process.

Tsuru lowered her hand, her expression stony.

“I’m not losing you to that thing, James. Don’t make me knock you out.”

With that, she stepped off towards the shoreline, beyond which could still be seen the flaming figure floating above the water, now disgorging a gout of flame on the water’s surface. 

As James’ brain slowly came back online, Tsuru’s outline began to flow. It was like mist or pipe-smoke, a trio of pale shapes rising from her skin and hanging in the air behind her, each of them slowly gaining solidity.

Soldiers. At least, that was what it looked like to James. Two with swords at waist, one in modern flak gear; colorless, like thickened smoke.

“Shield his mind,” she ordered in Japanese. “Keep him safe. Do not let him follow me.” She was gone before her men had time to nod.

The one in flak gear turned to James.

“You heard that, right, kid?” a male voice echoed. “You did good, but this is above your pay grade.”

Behind the first figure, one of the others raised an arm. James watched something flicker across his vision. The residual itching in his mind began to fade.

He turned his gaze toward the horizon, the flaming figure he now suspected to be his grandfather dodging and weaving through the air as the sea raised itself in columns to try and douse him.

“Kid,” the soldier asked. “You listening?”

James raised a hand to massage his still stinging cheek. He remembered the loosened pain of that thing gnawing on his soul. He remembered Charlie glaring at him.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “I promise I won’t try anything.” 

“Unless they start losing.”


Charlie:

There was something about all this that the boy found unsettling. An unrest that went beyond the faint discomfort he had felt as he’d watched his companion devour his once-friend’s mind. It nagged him more with every passing second as he watched the dancing of the lights above the water. Something buried in his head. Flashes of a half-connected memory. 

A star above a snowfield.

That fire in the sky was a threat.

They should leave. They ought to run.

His companion didn’t listen. It was angry. It had never been burned before. He could feel it bleeding through every facet of their connection.

Its rage was so much more than him.

It was a struggle not to drown in it.

Far above, the star-man loosed a bolt of piercing heat, plunging it down into the depths, highlighting all around it in a momentary orange glow. His companion dodged; far more agile, now that it was in the water, fins and tendrils flexing to spin it to the side, the boy clinging to its centre mass by force of mutual will.

The flame-spark hung there for a moment in the water, far more stable than it should have been. The boy understood the threat and sent his friend a warning a mere moment before the spark dispersed, the water all around it flashing into steam.

His companion laboured to shield the vastness of its form, but it did not have the time.

He didn’t need a link to hear it scream.

It fought back, its powers reaching through the water, twisting waves and torrents towards the star-man in the hope of quenching him.

The star-man dodged them easily.

Frustration.

His companion was not built for this. How was it to fight something that didn’t touch the water? He felt it searching through itself for something that could help. Words from languages it never spoke. Skills that it lacked the hands to use. A thousand spells, only a fraction of which it understood. Unable to even determine what could be of use.

As the light and heat began to fade, the boy caught sight of something new. A point on the ocean floor had begun to glow.

The spread of it was hard to tell, the silt covered over with a few years of his companion’s slime. All he could tell was that it was growing. A spot of heat an inch or so wide. Then a foot, then more.

He had a sinking feeling that he knew what would come next. 

That feeling was proven right as a glowing hand pushed itself free of the molten silt, a man of flowing lava pulling himself into view. 

For a moment, the two monsters just gazed at one another. 

Then the lava man raised his arms, and a spire of molten substrate rose from the seafloor like some wretched sort of spear, impure glass forming and cracking on its surface as internal heat battled against the cooling forces of the water. 

His companion pulled away before it struck. The lava man shifted pose. The spire exploded, ripping through the ocean in a thousand jagged spikes.

His companion’s fury echoed through the sea, and they were sand again.

This wasn’t good. Two adversaries now, both too strong to be ignored. His friend had barely been able to hold against the first. 

He had to do something. He couldn’t just sit waiting on the sidelines. There had to be something he could do.

He had an idea.

The boy gave his companion a gentle pat, a thousand tiny ridges of cartilage and scale brushing beneath his fingers.

‘I can help,’ he said. ‘You have to let me go.’ 

He wasn’t prepared for the force of his companion’s denial. It was angry. It was scared. It didn’t want to be away from him.

He leaned forward, his forehead resting against its back.

‘You have to trust me.’

A moment of agonized deliberation, then whatever force had held him shackled to the creature’s back eased off.

He pushed away from it, trying to resist being buffeted as its gigantic form sent eddies through the water. He swam down towards the lava man, his focus split between navigating the depths and searching for something he’d glimpsed being tossed aside in his companion’s mind.

It didn’t take long for the lava man to spot him. A moment of surprise flickered across what passed for the being’s face, followed by determination. As the boy continued for the depths, the man waded forth to meet him, each step slowed by a cold and pressure that the boy no longer felt.

Above them, his companion and the star-man warred, each bout sending heat and fury rippling through the sea. The boy ignored it all, even when a third combattant came upon them, this one carried by a long, snake-like drake of a size with his companion.

He could worry about that later. He had to stay on task.

He had nearly reached the lava man. He thought he saw compassion in what now passed for the figure’s eyes. It was hard to tell, so distant from the sun.

The boy reached out a hand.

His enemy did the same.

He found what he’d been looking for in his companion’s mind:

A thousand spells it didn’t know how to use.


Peter:

It was all Peter Toranaga could do to keep from being torn apart as the boy he had come to save reached into a well of power far larger than himself, and loosed a bolt of amber from his palm.

He let it catch him by surprise. He should have been prepared.

What struck his shield then was, to Peter’s estimation, the most powerful attack that he had ever witnessed. It didn’t so much strike into him as break around him, the light blooming out across his chest, then out into the water like the flow of an aurora.

His shields were reinforced by more than a month’s collected energy. The spell carved through them like a butter knife.

He felt pain in the places it had flowed, a half-dozen trenches simply burrowed through him by an ocean-weight of force. He would bleed when he returned to human form.

To his credit, he reacted fast. 

‘Shield his mind. Get him out of its control.’

Charlie was already paddling backwards in the water; but he was hardly the strongest swimmer.

Peter loosed his spell, watching in grim satisfaction as the faintly glowing barrier pulsed into being around the boy’s form.

He hadn’t expected for the Whale to panic, nor for Charlie to do the same. Panic they did, though, the Whale jerking around in the water above them, breaking loose its grapple with his mother’s dragon, before thrashing its way towards them like a raging bull.

Bad as that was, Charlie’s response was even worse.

Charlie started drowning.

Previous Chapter:

Tide: 7.4

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Bermuda, Peter:

Peter would be first upon the breach. There had been no argument on that; though he could tell his father had wanted to. The topic had not been broached. 

His parents had failed. There was no judgement to that. No recrimination. They knew it just as well as he did. They had failed to protect his son. This was his job now.

When the portal opened, he would be the one to storm the gap, however fortified the enemy had made it. He would pass through, he would destroy, and he would find his son. It was that simple. There was nothing to fear.

That didn’t mean there was no tension in the air as the assembled team waited for the gate to open. They were all quiet. Peter struggled to look at Jackie as she worked, kneeling in the ground as she searched for the tear her son had left in their reality. Was that how he looked to the rest of them? That ironclad look of calm? That stiffness in her shoulders? Those eyes that still radiated fear?

No. Of course not. Why would he look like that? There was nothing to be scared of. He was going to fix this.

He should say something to her. Something reassuring. She was his friend, after all. He opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. No. It would be over soon enough anyway. Better to let the woman do her work. 

He sighed.

Minutes passed. A whistling of the wind. The lapping of waves against the shore.

“Found it,” Jackie murmured, the lights already starting to spark blue around her as she spoke. “Bridging the gap in one minute.”

Peter unclipped his belt-flask and weighed it in his palm. Almost full. Several months of stockpiled power. Enough to fill out his reserves a dozen or so times over. He shook his head. Endurance would be pointless on the other side. His enemy would be flooded with magical energy. He would have to be as well.

He glanced at Jackie’s work, waited until she was only twenty seconds or so from the completion of her spell, then unscrewed the cap. 

The fluid was just as foul as always. He swallowed every drop.

His skin began to glow.

It had perhaps been inevitable that Peter Toranaga would one day find an elemental form, his father being what he was. Such was the way with half-breeds, after all; to draw from the nature of their parents in some or other manner. For Peter, though, it had taken time. He had been well into his adolescence by the time he was powerful enough to make the shift, and even then, it was nowhere near as pure.

When his father touched the flame, it was to become something else entirely; devoid of substance or weight; of anything, save the heat. 

For Peter, the transformation wasn’t quite so clean. He was fire, true enough; yet his body still possessed solidity. He didn’t grow, or fly, or feel a shift in his perception. Instead, he flowed, the heat gathering at his fingertips and falling in droplets to the earth. The sand fused into glass about his feet. 

He would save his son.

The worlds connected. He felt the scratching in his mind. His calm broke at that.

Whatever it was, scrabbling at his soul, James had been stuck here with it for almost a day. He felt his son’s odds of survival plummet.

Behind him, his father had begun to speak. He stepped forward through the aperture.

‘Don’t panic,’ he told himself. ‘He’s a smart kid. He probably ran the moment he felt that thing nearby.’

The reassurance didn’t help. 

It was almost a relief when the first attack came. At least it gave him something else to focus on. He didn’t have to wait long. The moment his feet touched the surface of the new world, there was a snap, something green and slender tearing free of the ground around him, sending sand plumes high into the air, lunging from everywhere at once. A good opening move; too quick for him to dodge. 

He didn’t have time for this. He reached into his gathered energy well and used it to press his shield out. The barrier swelled around him like a bubble, crackling for a moment as the emerald cord slammed itself around it, a loop of lightning trying to constrict. He pushed his shield out further.

It wasn’t exactly surprising that they’d set up a trap. It was the only logical choice if his quarry ever expected to leave this world again. They had to have known his team would pursue them when they fled, and they had to know that his family would be unbeatable if allowed to absorb the power of this planet. Better to fight his people here, with the bottleneck of the portal and the time to prepare an ambush. This had been expected, but he’d thought they’d make a greater effort.

The lightning coil hissed with unspent energy as it tried yet harder to crush itself upon him, its one directive to cut his form to shreds. He pushed his shield out further, forcing the coil out with a sound like grinding rust. He glanced around. Crystal sands, red-boughed trees, and a gentle tide. 

Still no sign of an ambush. Had they thought the lightning coil would be enough? Had they fled the psychic noise? It made no sen-

There was a faint pop a few dozen feet to Peter’s right. He glanced over, and met the eyes of an old, sallow looking man, a series of faint burns still healing on his face. 

The man swore. Peter continued pushing his shield out. The lighting cord began to flicker. The enemy aimed his gun at Peter’s chest. 

The first shot struck his shield with a force to split the sky, the sound of it piercing the relative quiet with an almost whiplike crack. His barrier sang with the weight of it. 

‘Stop wasting my time.’

The lightning cord was there to waste his time. Hold him down while the gunman poured out shot after shot against him. It had to go. He dug into his power. A brief incantation, then his shield pulsed. The binding tore apart with a sound like crunching gravel.

Another empowered bullet set his shield thrumming like a base drum. Then another. He looked his attacker in the eye, shrunk his barrier down, and simply let the bastard shoot him, all the while pressing his power into the ground about his feet. He waited for the man to empty out his gun before he spoke, the sand glowing rose-pink with the heat of his abilities.

“Tell me where the children are,” he said plainly. “And I will try as hard as I can to let you live.”

Something rippled from the ocean then, a distortion in the air. The scratching in Peter’s head grew stronger. There was no time for this.

At his words, the enemy simply clicked open his revolver, and started to reload.

‘Well, I tried.’

He raised a hand towards his foe. The man popped out of existence a mere fraction of a second before a spire of molten glass rose to fill the space where he had been.

He cocked his head towards the portal.

“Kill him.”

When Sebastian Grey re-emerged, it was to find the full might of the Toranaga family arrayed against him. To his credit, he did not buckle. There was no pleading. No attempt to flee. Neither action would have saved him.

Once the fight was done, the three gathered. The traps were disposed of. They had their foothold. Now to begin the search.

Peter raised his arm toward the sea, the sunset glow of his transformation pushing through the fresh-made markings on his forearm to create an odd, faintly purple light. Hopefully this new familiar could find them.

Caleb had resisted at first, when told to hand it over, gratitude for his partner’s safe return warring with deeply coded paranoia. It was only when told the use to which it would be put that he relented. It had taken more patience than Peter was proud of not to take it from the boy by force.

“Well?” Hideyoshi asked. “Anything?”

Peter raised a hand for quiet. He had to focus. The bird’s senses were foggy; weakened by weeks of starvation on a planet that lacked the energy to sustain it and clouded by the newfound weight of magic in the air. It took time. There was something at the bottom of the sea. Something leaking its power into the water. It had a scent that seemed to terrify the hunting bird. He shifted his arm, searching for new trails on the wind. 

Eventually, the bird caught a trace of something more familiar; the same scent that it had found scattered about his house. The smell of his son, along with something that could have been Charlie, were it not so tainted by the scent of burning plastic. He pointed.

“There,” he said, his eyes alighting on one of the distant islands. “Smells like Charlie’s with him. No doubt the other kidnappers are still out hunting fo-”

That was when the ocean split, the surface shearing apart a mile or so from the shore to send a plume of spray hundreds of feet into the air. When it cleared, all that was left behind was a long, wide trench, caving into itself in a set of hard right angles, as if someone had cut the water like a birthday cake.

Peter stopped talking, he and his parents turning as one to stare.

At that distance, it took a second or so for the sound of it to reach them, an echoing boom, followed by a low, rumbling roar, like the crashing of a distant storm. Then came the words, clear as a bell, even at such a distance.

“Give him back,” said his son.

‘James.’

As one, the three of them began to move, leaving Sebastian’s body to cool beneath a mound of faintly glowing glass.

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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: 6.10

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Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never been a particularly subtle man. It wasn’t something that had ever truly been expected, nor, indeed, desired of him. Not even in his youth. He had been taught the opposite, in fact.

He was fire. What use did fire have for restraint?

It had taken centuries for the boy that he had been to address the severity of that mistake; instilling, over time, a passable head for tactics within himself.

Even now, however, subtlety didn’t come naturally to him.

The portal led the trio out into a snowfield, a half-mile or so from their target, and a few feet deep in the lightly falling snow. Laying eyes on the facility took time, half buried by the snowfall as it was; the search aided only somewhat by the slowly building glow emanating from the compound’s upper floors.

When the Egyptian set his gaze upon it, one arm rising to point it out, Hideyoshi simply sniffed. He extended a tendril of his power towards the place, and felt a flicker.

“Shielded,” he murmured. “I’ll deal with it.”

His companions took a few steps back towards the portal at that, their forms cutting waist-deep trenches in the powder, faint trails of lightning-light dancing around them as they first strengthened, then doubled down on their shields.

For his part, Hideyoshi’s feet left no imprint on the ground. Why walk when he had yet to recover most of the feeling in his legs? The man set his gaze upon the place. Then, he began to drift slowly upward.

Below him, his wife quietly winced. He smiled.

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never gotten the hang of subtlety.


For the few men assigned to remain on guard of the facility’s outer wall as the ritual entered its final stages, the first wave was difficult to parse as an attack.

It was closer to the birth of a star.

For the man at the gate-house, there was just enough time to catch sight of a distant speck of color in the sky. Then some buried primate instinct slammed his eyes closed before the light could finish scorching through his retinas.

The attack wasn’t something to be measured in seconds. More like frames; each one a photo in a sequence.

For the first microsecond, Hideyoshi simply hung there in the sky, the lie of that ancient form shucked from his skin. His flaming figure was lithe now; slender, and small. Not quite a child, yet eternally touched by youth.

Had they been able to look on him without being rendered blind, the defenders might have taken him for an angel.

Then came the heat.

It wasn’t flame yet. Fire takes time to catch, and all of this was over in an instant. The heat pressed out from the elemental like a wave, washing the cold from the winter air with the ease of a passing thought.

The heat permeated.

In the next frame, the air around the compound seemed to ripple, catching the light of Hideyoshi’s flame and the distant sun as though the entire building was held within a snowglobe. For its part, the surrounding snowfield had become a lake, sitting like a miracle on flat land as the powder was heated from below freezing to well above boiling.

In the frame after that came pressure; a few hundred thousand tonnes of water abruptly realizing that it needed to be a gas.

To call it an explosion would have been to undersell it. The shockwave was such that, for perhaps a tenth of a second, the landscape was held in vacuum; the weight of the sky itself not quite heavy enough to pierce it.

For the defenders in their fort, however, the results were a mite less cataclysmic. The air about the building cracked, the thunderclap of the explosion rolling over it and sending fissures radiating through the air like lightning caught in glass. Behind that injured barrier, the walls stood firm, even if the very shaking of the ground was enough to shatter every window on the compound’s upper floor.

It almost surprised him when a door burst open on the building’s roof, a single figure darting out towards the building’s edge. Strange. Hideyoshi hadn’t felt any particular heat behind that door, or from anywhere else within the building’s walls, for that matter. Perhaps it was the barrier, partially shrouding the place from his new form’s senses. He uttered a charm to reassert his human eyesight, and the image came through clearer.

The figure had a rifle in hand, eyes covered by dark, heavy lidded goggles.

Hideyoshi chuckled. At least the enemy adapted fast.

The sniper readied the weapon, took aim, and made the shot.

Their aim was perfect. Hideyoshi didn’t move, simply intensifying the wall of heat radiating from his unencumbered form. The bullet was reduced to vapor before it even reached him.

Cute.

Almost lazily, Hideyoshi raised an arm.

It felt so strange, being in this body again. He’d grown used to the feigned stoop of his older self. The slight croak of his voice, the inevitable stiffness in his joints.

The pretense of infirmity necessitated such things.

He’d forgotten what it was like to be this small: the slender god; the dancing sprite at the heart of the inferno.

His movements felt so fluid now.

He flicked a wrist, and a tongue of flame leapt across the gap between himself and the fortification, lashing at the barrier with such might that the air itself thrummed with the force of the blow. The cracks grew; his flame tearing through their wall like claws through an eggshell.

The barrier flickered. He readied another blow.

A faint crack, then a new figure popped into existence on the rooftop; suit-clad, straight-backed, and elderly. The figure was looking right at him, his eyes unprotected.

The light didn’t even make him flinch.

Hideyoshi struck again, the half-mile cord of flame splitting into a hundred smaller skeins to dance in spark and ember on the enemy’s defences.

It was at that point that the steam made by Hideyoshi’s first assault began to return itself to earth; the superheated vapor having risen up, then rapidly cooled itself in the still arctic air beyond the upper bounds of his domain. It sank back down upon them now as fog, light, at first, but building; soon to cover all below in a densely clouded haze.

The man spoke then, and Hideyoshi knew that he was meant to hear, for the words carried, despite the breadth of the gap between them.

“This is your real face, elemental,” he said coldly, the words quiet, despite their clarity. “Not some old wise man, but a monster out of books and children’s tales. The kind of demon that heroes used to hunt; capable of nothing more than holding our species back.” If his eyes had still been physical things at that moment, Hideyoshi would have rolled them. He didn’t care. He drew his tendrils back for yet another strike. Then, the man continued: “That’s why things like you deserve to die.”

There was another quiet crack, then a much louder one as, for the briefest moment, the man hung in the air just a few feet to Hideyoshi’s right, his shield already peeling away layer by layer from just the ambient heat of being so close to the elemental’s form.

The man had a revolver aimed at Hideyoshi’s head.

He pulled the trigger.

What followed bore about the same relation to a gunshot as lightning does to a spark. Instead of the usual flash of light and harmless spray of lead, his form was sent hurtling through the sky by a bolt of raw force that left a trail of silver light hanging in the air behind it. His shield split, his firelight thrown into disarray by the refraction all around him.

Enchanted bullets. Powerful ones.

Hideyoshi responded quicker than a thought, spinning in the air like a top, his hundred skeins dancing towards his foe like a latticework of death.

The gunman was already gone.

His expanded senses were enough to tell him of the change in heat on the ground below that marked the gunner’s relocation. That, in turn, was enough to allow him the very narrowest of dodges as the second round cleaved the sky in two like a lance of solid starlight.

He brought his force to bear on the ground below, just in time for his enemy to vanish once again. He let out a growl, the sound strangely musical now that it lacked the imperfections of age, and bore the gunner’s third shot directly on his shield. He didn’t try to dodge. His focus was on other matters. He prepped a spell.

He swung to face his foe again, and once again, the man was gone.

No room for error here. Another hit would be the death of him.

At the edge of the forest, the gunner reappeared, weapon already raised, thumb to the hammer.

Hideyoshi teleported.

No sooner had the fourth shot left his opponent’s gun than the elemental re-emerged. He was at ground level now, his enemy less than a foot away.

The air parched.

The gunner flinched; his seemingly indomitable focus cracking for but a second as his shield faded to a shred and his skin slowly but surely began to burn.

Hideyoshi reached a slender arm towards the revolver, one finger stretching out, ready to simply melt the barrel down the middle.

The gunner vanished.

This time, Hideyoshi didn’t feel him reappear; his exit point either well beyond the elemental’s range, or obscured by whatever enchantments lined the compound’s walls. He huffed.

Off to lick his wounds. Weak.


Charlie:

“So your grandad’s the fire dude?” Charlie asked, trying simultaneously to both peer out of his cell’s small window and stay as far away from it as the boundaries of the room would allow. “He’s freaking terrifying.”

On the other end of the line, James snickered.

“He’s not that bad,” he admonished. “He’s my grandpa. He just gets kind of intense when he’s doing good guy stuff.”

“Dude. He made the floor explode.”

Whatever James’ answer was, the loud crack as the charred form of Sebastian Grey materialized in the middle of the room was enough to drown it out.

Charlie flinched, moving reflexively to stow his borrowed phone. Not fast enough.

“… So you’re the reason they found us,” the older man muttered, his voice cold. “You’ll pay for that.”

“Wait,” crackled James’ voice, his tone alarmed. “Who-”

The sounds died as Sebastian’s fingers wrenched the phone from Charlie’s grip, his gun hand closing like a vice on the boy’s shoulder.

Sebastian’s skin was burned.

He raised the phone to his mouth, and uttered one sharp phrase into the mouthpiece:

“You can have him back when I’m done with him. Not before.”

With that, he tossed the phone aside, and the world popped out of place before Charlie’s eyes.

In the next second, the two were standing in a medical bay; dozens of people, both vertical and horizontal, spaced around it. Most of the conscious ones were positioned by the doors, weapons at the ready.

There was something glowing on the floor.

“Um,” was all Charlie had time to say before Sebastian shoved him back against the wall, and strode towards the glowing mass in the centre of the room.

“You threw the wrench into this plan, Charles,” he said, quiet fury etched into every word as he picked whatever it was up off the floor. “And I will make sure that you’re the one to fix it.”

He tossed the thing to Charlie. Charlie caught it.

It was a water bottle, filled to the brim with a glowing, oddly pearlescent fluid.

Sebastian leveled his revolver at Charlie’s chest.

“Drink it.”


Hideyoshi:

A glance towards the forest, and the fires stilled as quick as they had started. The light and heat around him dimmed to that of a campfire; barely visible in the fog. No point in leaving the landscape scarred. No doubt it was his light that had allowed the gunner such an easy target.

“Interesting enemy you’ve got there,” murmured Tsuru’s voice. He didn’t bother looking up. He could feel her presence drifting toward him through the mist; still a few dozen feet away, Binyamin not far behind her. “Precision teleporter. It’s an admirable skill, to achieve so many in succession like that.”

Hideyoshi grunted, absentmindedly pumping fresh energy into his wards.

“Weak shields, though,” he muttered. “I didn’t even have to hit him to burn them out. I doubt he’ll be capable of much once he’s out of ammunition.”

His wife chuckled.

“Ah, Yoshi,” she murmured, her voice shifting to archaic Japanese to hide the words from their companion. “I’d forgotten your voice could sound so young.”

Hideyoshi gave her a smile.

“You should do the same from time to time. The mind forgets how much more easily the body moved in youth. I find it helps to be reminded.”

“I will, dear,” she replied, crossing the last of the distance between them and resting her hand on his head. “Just as soon as Bex learns the truth. No use pretending to be mortal after that.” She tussled the flames that presently constituted his hair, her shield flickering almost imperceptibly. “I think I’ll wait it out until then.”

Hideyoshi shook his head.

“Twelve years in the body of a crone,” he muttered. “Your patience astounds me, love.”

With that, the moment broke. His words returned to english.

“The two of you finish breaking down that barrier. Get the hostages out while I deal with the gu-”

That was as far as Hideyoshi got before, with a roar of pure, panicked rage, James Toranaga slammed his titan form into the compound’s shield with all the force that he could muster.

The barrier shattered.

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Care: 6.9

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Charlie:

Charles Vance had spent a long few days unsure of what to think. Stuck alone in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and the passing attention of his wardens to distract him. Stress was too small a word for it.

He was angry, he was scared, he was tired, and his skin still itched beneath the bandages from where the base’s surgeons had laid their scalpels about his form, only barely possessing the decency to put him under first.

Most importantly of all, however, was this: for almost a week, Charles Vance had not known if his mother had survived the shot that brought her down. So when James Toranaga called to bring her in, it was almost enough to bring the boy to tears.

Almost.

“Wait, wait,” he asked, his prior train of thought brought to a sudden halt. “My mom’s there? She’s okay? Tell me she’s okay!”

“What?” James asked, his voice sounding just as frazzled as Charlie felt. “O-oh. Yeah. She’s fine. She’s been freaking the heck out about finding you, but she’s fine. My grandma’s gonna go and-” There was a muffled pop on the other end of the line. “-Just went to go get her.”

There were other voices speaking on James’ side of the phone; low voices growling words that Charlie couldn’t make out; James himself snapping angrily in retort. Charlie wasn’t paying attention. The relief was too intense. He was shaking. His breaths becoming rather shallow. He lowered the phone from his ear, and brought his forearm up against his eyes.

He wasn’t getting rid of tears. Of course not. Just scratching an itch. Why would he be crying? Crying would be a dumb thing to do right now.

“Okay,” he muttered, refusing to allow himself a sniffle. “She’s okay. Mom’s okay. Good. That’s good.”

A second or two passed like that, the argument on the other end of the phone line quietly raging as he tried to pull himself together. Then Twenty Three flicked him in the temple.

He glanced at her, confused; his thoughts slowed.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes darting towards the empty hallway as she spoke. “We’ve gotta get this done. You can cry about it later.”

It took the words half a second or so to sink in; longer still for Charlie to force the dazed fog from his mind. She was right. They didn’t have time for this. He shook himself.

“I wasn’t crying,” he muttered, returning the phone to his ear. “James. I need to speak to someone strong. We need help over here. We’re stuck, and we need someone tough to get us out. Is your dad around? Or your grandpa?”

The response wasn’t quite what Charlie had expected.

“Oh, not you too!” James snapped. “You don’t get to kick me out of this. I’m not handing off the phone, and I am not waiting in the hallway! I’m part of this!” Another muffled growl from the end of the line. James gave his best approximation of a swear. “Freaking fine! Look, I’m putting you on speakerphone. My grandad’s here. He’s super strong. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a rustling noise, then the muffled voices on James’ side grew louder; each of them distinct.

One of them was speaking now; a male voice that Charlie vaguely recognized as James’ grandpa.

“I don’t care if you’re attracted to this boy, James. You’re not allowed to dictate who he talks to. That’s exactly the kind of rash decision making that proves you shouldn’t-”

“Jiji!” James snapped, his voice pitching rapidly towards a squeak. “He can hear you!”

Charlie had roughly half a second to process the knowledge that his best friend liked him before the older man continued.

“He can hear me? Good. Charlie. I need you to tell me everything you can. What’s your situation like. Can you see any landmarks. Are there any other captives with you?”

Charlie pushed the uncomfortable thought of James’ romantic inclinations away, and focused on the task at hand. A few months of burgeoning sexual awareness had taught Charlie that he was definitely into girls, but that was a conversation better saved for later.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “There’s a bunch of other prisoners in here too, but they’re all in their own cells. I haven’t got to talk to any of them yet. As for landmarks, there’s mountains outside the window, and it’s snowed most days since I got here-”

That was as far as he got before Twenty Three wrenched the phone from his hand and spoke into the mouthpiece, her tone curt:

“You’re trying to figure out where we are,” she said. “I’ll save you some time. We’re in Sweden. The facility is on the edge of a forest, about two miles east of Östra Kjolsjön’s southern tip. You can see Åreskutan through the window, so the cell block has to be on the south side of the complex.” With that, she pressed the phone back into Charlie’s hands. “First thing I did when I was planning this was track down a map.” She stepped towards the doorway. “Keep talking. I’m going to get a fresh disguise.”

Charlie returned the phone to his ear just in time to make out a question from a voice he didn’t recognize; male and faintly middle-eastern.

“Who was that?” the stranger asked. “Are there people with you? Can you trust them?”

“Yeah-” Charlie started, before cutting himself off. “I mean, I think so. I think she’s the one that Caleb guy was trying to save. She said she’d try and get me out.”

A distant grunt.

“Caleb will be thrilled,” Hideyoshi muttered. “And how’s the rescue progressing?”

“It’s, uh,” Charlie weighed up what he knew about the situation thus far in his head. “Not great.” He crossed the room to peak out through the doorway. He spotted Twenty Three almost immediately, an unconscious body he recognized as the guard who, ten minutes ago, had been patrolling the cell-block slung about her shoulder. “She’s taken out a bunch of guards, but they put a tracking chip inside me, so we can’t sneak away unless someone can punch a hole.”

There was a loud crunching noise from somewhere up above. Both Charlie and Twenty Three looked towards the ceiling.

“… And the roof just started glowing,” he added lamely. “No idea what that’s about.”

The sudden tide of questions that comment prompted was drowned out by Twenty Three’s response. Across the hallway, the young woman went from double speed to triple. She lugged the unconscious guard down the hall until she reached the first doorway with a simple handle instead of a secure lock, and quite simply kicked it open.

“Tell em I’m gonna get you out by car!” She shouted. “I need em to make some noise and make sure no one has a chance to follow us!”

Charlie nodded, returning his attention to the phone just in time for the flow of questions to suddenly come to a stop.

There was a quiet pop. Then silence.

“… Your mom’s here,” said James.

Charlie took a breath.

Keep it together.

“Hi, Mom.”

He was proud of that. His voice only caught a little.

No response. Just the muttered sounds of Hideyoshi relaying the situation to the new arrivals.

Then, in a voice of pure fact, Charlie’s mother spoke.

“Charlie,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there. We’re having enchilada wraps for dinner, and none of this is ever getting close to you again. You hear me?”

Charlie sniffed.

“… Yeah. Ok.”

When Jacqueline Vance spoke again, the words were not directed at her son.

“I’ll have a portal open in two minutes. Have a plan ready by then, or I’m leaving you behind.”

The middle-eastern voice answered first.

“I haven’t cast a spell in almost a day. I’m at full power.”

“Me as well,” Tsuru agreed. “Minus a couple of teleports. I don’t think raw force should be an issue. The only concern is the woman they’ve got in charge.”

The stranger started to reply, before Hideyoshi cut him off.

“You leave their leadership to me,” he said. “I have a score to settle with the woman who broke my spine.”

Charlie opened his mouth, but Tsuru spoke before he could.

“Absolutely not,” she said, her tone firm. “You are to stay in the rear in case we need artillery. I am not letting you fight her with an injury.”

Hideyoshi started to reply. This time, it was Charlie’s turn to interrupt.

“Do you mean the woman who teleported me?” he asked. “Cuz she’s dead. Twenty Three killed her the moment we got here.”

A moment’s quiet.

“How sure are you?” Tsuru asked.

“Pretty sure.” Charlie shrugged. “She got stabbed like, seven times cuz Twenty Three had a meltdown.” There was something deeply wrong, Charlie thought, about being able to say those words in so matter-of-fact a manner. “… I think I might need therapy.”

A chuckle.

“Right,” Tsuru resumed. “Hideyoshi will take the lead, then. Binyamin and I can stay in reserve.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet mutter something along the lines of: “Trust your damned husband, woman.”

Charlie cleared his throat.

“Uh. Twenty Three says she’s gonna get me to a car. She needs you to hold em off while we-”

“Stay exactly where you are,” came Hideyoshi’s answer. “You’re in the southern cell-block. As long as I know that’s where you are, I can make sure you don’t get hit.”

Charlie glanced towards the ceiling.

“The roof’s still glowing.”

“That just means we have to hurry.”

A few ever tenser moments later, Jacqueline announced the portal ready, and Hideyoshi barked the order to advance, leaving Charlie presumably alone with James. The silence that followed then held a very different kind of tension.

“… Still there?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” James replied. “Me and your mom. She’s holding the portal open.”

“Right.” Charlie contemplated his life for a second, then took a breath. “So,” he tried. “I’m uh. I’m straight-”

“Right,” came James’ overly hastened reply. “Sure. Cool. Of course you are. Great.”

Another awkward moment’s quiet, then Charlie started laughing.

“Such, a freaking, dork.”

“… Shut up.”

“Never.”

In the quiet that followed, the elemental began laying down his siege.

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