Need: 9.3

Previous Chapter:

James:

“I still don’t really know what happened,” Jackie muttered, her words coming out calmer, now, slower; hands wrapped tight around a mug of instant coffee. “Whatever it was, it got inside my head. Made the memories harder for me to get to. Every time I try, it’s like I’m pulling teeth.”

They’d moved into the sitting room upon Peter’s rushed arrival home; himself and, to a lesser extent, Casper, helping to ease Jackie back into a state where she could talk. She gave James a look over the lip of her mug. She looked like she hadn’t slept or showered in a year.

“Sorry for shaking you like that. I was having a bit of a day.”

“S’fine,” James said quietly from the pouffe by the door. He gave her a smile. “I’ve had days like that.”

Jackie snickered to herself, tension still evident in the setting of her shoulders, the twitching in the muscles about her throat.

“Not like this, you haven’t.” She took a deep breath, and turned to look at Peter. “I think… I think I found Charlie last night.”

James felt the world fall out from under him at that.

“… I see,” Peter said. “Where and how?”

Jackie shrugged, the movement just jerky enough to slosh some of the coffee from her cup, and shook her head.

“Still not a hundred percent on that,” she admitted. “Still too foggy. I think he came to visit me.”

“Mrs. Vance?” Casper muttered, off to the side. “No offense… You were pretty intense when you got here. Still kind of are. How do we know you’re not…”

“How do you know I’m not fucking crazy?” Jackie asked, the words just a touch accusatory.

Casper reddened a tad at that, but he didn’t back down. He rarely did anymore.

“… Yes,” he said eventually. “That.”

Jackie glared at him. He met her gaze, unmoving.

James looked away from them. There was a sinking in his gut. Hollow. He wanted to believe her. He really did.

“Why are you people so determined to believe he’s dead?” Jackie’s tone was angry. Or frustrated. It was hard to tell. Both, probably.

Peter let in a breath to speak, but James beat him to it. “You said he came to visit you?” he asked. “The Whale wouldn’t let him do that. It’s too clingy. It doesn’t sound… Real.”

He forced himself to look at Jackie’s face at the last few words. He wished he hadn’t. There was betrayal there.

“… You too, huh?” she said bitterly.

That stung. He got up to leave, unable to meet her gaze anymore. Behind him, he could hear his father offering a quiet reproach. He was gone before she gave a reply. He walked off towards the kitchen, not really sure where he was going. When he got there, he clambered up onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar and simply gazed at the kitchen wall. Not seeing it.

Casper joined him before too long, sitting at the stool to his right, reaching down to squeeze his wrist.

“They went to the lookout in Bermuda,” said the older boy. “She says there’s evidence. Your dad wanted to see.”

James nodded, still just staring at the wall, streaks of grease between the tiles.

“… Is she okay?” he asked eventually.

Casper shook his head.

“No,” he admitted. “She was right. There’s something weird in her head. It felt like a migraine. On steroids.”

James nodded. He didn’t really know what else to say.

“Why’d you leave?” Casper asked. “Don’t you wanna know what’s going on?”

James shook his head, a spike of guilt flaring in the back of his mind.

“Not if it’s wrong,” he admitted. “Like… If he’s really alive somewhere. I’d love that. But… I mean, It’s like you said. She didn’t look okay. And if this is just her having a breakdown…”

Casper shifted his grip down from James’ wrist, and gave his hand a squeeze.

“Don’t wanna get your hopes up?” he asked.

James nodded. He could feel the tears welling up behind his eyes. The urge to sniff. He blinked them back.

“… I already lost him once,” he mumbled. “Not again. I’m not believing it until we know for sure.”

Casper chuckled. “Fair.”

Neither spoke for a while. James wasn’t entirely sure how long they sat like that. Odd, really. He spent most of that time staring at a clock.

Eventually, Casper cleared his throat.

“Ok,” he said, pulling himself up off of his stool. “Come on. Your sad boy vibes are killing my buzz. Come with me.” He gave James’ hand a tug to pull him off his seat, then dragged him from the room, forcing him to float momentarily so as to avoid being pulled off balance.

“Where are we going?” asked James, quietly bemused.

“My room,” Casper answered. “Jam session. You and me. Right now.”

James sighed.

“Thanks, Casper.”


Jackie:

“You’re a seasoned combat mage,” Peter said evenly, gesturing to each of the ravaged trees in turn. “You could have done this on your own.”

Jackie laughed angrily.

“You are unbelievable,” she snapped. “All that talk about being here for me and the moment I ask for help, you turn your back.”

“I’m not turning my back,” Peter replied, the calm expression dropping from his face for a moment, before being forced back into place. “I’m asking for proof. Something I can act on.”

Jackie swore.

“This entire island is covered in portal scars! I can sense the residue everywhere I check! It’s his! His energy!”

“No one else can verify that,” said Peter. “None of the other portal makers knows his energy signature. You could be mistaken. Or lying.”

“Why would I lie about this!?” Jackie shrieked, a flare of anger alloying her frustration.

Peter shrugged.

“Because you know that if you can convince me he’s alive, I’ll start helping you again. Take another leave of absence, start combing the area with you again. You think it’ll help-”

Jackie slapped him. He didn’t flinch.

“You wait right there, asshole,” she snapped. With that, she teleported back towards her cabin. Once inside, she strode the short distance to the sink, pulled the slime encrusted gobbet of Charlie’s hair out of the drain, and teleported back. Then, she threw it at Peter’s chest.

Peter grimaced as it made impact, taking an instinctive half-step backwards as it slapped wetly against his suit.

“There!” Jackie yelled, watching as he tried to wipe the mass from his lapels. “That’s his hair! He left it in my sink! You want something I can’t fake? There you fucking go!”

She was breathing hard now, furious. Why did every single thing have to get in her way?

Peter gazed at the tangle of hair, one eyebrow raised. Then, he looked at her.

“Okay,” he said, holding it up. “This, we can work with.”


James:

Jamming with Casper was oddly soothing. James was into it, laying back on the older boy’s mattress, eyes half-closed, singing nostalgia songs to the rhythm of his friend’s acoustic. He liked this, not having to think. Inhale. Exhale. Sing.

Casper joined him once or twice, complementing the airy notes of his soprano with a lower harmony. James hid a snicker when Casper’s voice broke. The older boy went back to just the guitar after that.

They’d been at it for an hour, maybe more. Hard to say. Casper was practicing a bass-line by ear. James was curled up on the bed, flicking through anime hashtags on his instagram.

“You’ve got a nice voice, Cas,” he mused. “Why don’t you show it more?”

Casper shrugged.

“I don’t like being in the spotlight, man. I’m not you.”

James looked up from his phone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Casper smirked.

“It means you like when people look at you,” he answered, hiding a snicker. “Kind of an attention whore.”

James threw a pillow at him.

“Am not,” he said, not actually that offended. “I just like being good at stuff. Making an impression, you know?”

“Yeah,” Casper teased. “Cuz you want everyone to like you.”

James raised an eyebrow at that, half-smiling.

“Dude. Of course I want everyone to like me. Everyone wants that. It’s how being popular works.”

Casper gave a quiet groan at the word ‘popular’.

“I don’t,” he said. “Sounds exhausting. And I don’t need everyone to be my friend. Cuz I’m not an attention whore.”

James gave a playful groan of his own.

“Just cuz I have more than five friends,” he teased back. “You’re just scared you might be good at it.”

Casper snorted at that and gave the bar he’d been working on a final shot. He nodded in satisfaction, then leaned back, gazing at the ceiling.

“… What’ll you do,” he asked. “If he really is alive?”

James tried to hide the pang in his heart at that question, not that hiding it would even work with Casper. He returned to his phone screen, absently clicking follow on some fanart of a ship he liked.

“I dunno,” he said eventually. “… Think he’d even want to see me?”

Casper glanced across at him.

“Why wouldn’t he?” he asked. “You mean cuz you couldn’t save him last time, or-”

“I did save him last time,” James replied, a touch harsher than he meant to. He felt a pang of guilt at that, but Casper waved it off before he could voice an apology. “… I mean. He was right there. I had him. And then he went and-” He lifted a finger to his throat, not quite able to put the act to words. Casper got his meaning, though. He knew the story well enough. He took a breath. “What if he’s still like that… What if he hates me now?”

Casper sighed, then set the guitar down, and shifted over across the bed, parking himself down a foot or so off to James’ side. There was an awkward silence as the older boy slung an arm around his shoulder.

“… What if it were me?” he asked eventually. “I mean, what if Father got hold of me and did his fucked up mind control stuff on me? What if I said you weren’t my friend anymore?”

James sucked a sharp breath in through his teeth at that. Father was a delicate subject. Not least because he was pretty certain that Casper still had contact with him.

“Easy,” he muttered, his temper flaring a tad in spite of himself, reciting the answer he’d decided on almost a year before. “I’d get Baba and Jiji’s help to beat the crap out of him and get you home. And then I’d smack you as many times as it took for you to remember that you’re not a sex toy. You’re my friend. I. Have. Dibs.” He prodded Casper in the side at that, giving him a hard look for maximum emphasis. It didn’t work. Casper was grinning ear to ear. “Don’t you smile at me! I’m serious!”

“I know you are,” Casper answered, his tone still a touch too light. “I just like your answer, that’s all. I’m glad I know you.” He leaned in, and James had about half a second to prepare for the impending kiss, before the taller boy changed direction at the last moment, and instead simply pecked him on the forehead.

James’ cheeks grew rather warm at that, flushed with embarrassed disappointment. Casper gave him a wink, gently teasing.

“So,” the older boy asked. “If that’s your answer for me, why’s it any different for him? The Whale’s got mind stuff too, you know.”

James gave his friend a glare, then a groan.

“… What if we can’t fix it, though?”

Casper shrugged.

“Maybe you can’t,” he muttered. “But you can still try. Right?”

James considered that for a long moment, and conceded the point with a defeated huff.

He slumped backwards on the bed.

“… The kiss was a dick move, dude.”

Casper snickered.

“Well, who knows? Maybe I’ll do it for real next time.”
Previous Chapter:

Need: 9.2

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Bermuda:

Jacqueline Vance took a while to return to consciousness. She could feel beach sand against her face, a touch of warm, tropical rain tapping away at the fabric of her jacket. She tried moving, and groaned. Her limbs ached. She moved anyway, forcing herself upright with the tired endurance of a woman who had spent the last nine months pushing through exhaustion. She tried to blink the grit from her eyes. Her head was foggy. What was she doing out here?

She scanned the beach around her. There was the shack, just a hundred yards or so along the shoreline. She glanced back towards the miniscule scrap of forest that the micro island was able to sustain, and stared. Her mind was slow today, cogs catching against themselves as she tried, and for the most part, failed, to think. Had it always looked like that, with so many of the palm trees torn apart and smoldering, the fire fighting a losing battle with the rain?

She let out another groan, then slapped herself. The pain brought a dash of alertness to her mind, but not enough. She tore her eyes from the treeline, and stepped off to dunk her head into the ocean.

It worked; partly, at least. The ocean had a touch more feeling to it than the rain, the salt eliciting a sharp sting from a number of the cuts and scrapes she had yet to fully notice she was afflicted with, and allowing her to wash some of the exhaustion from her eyes. She pulled herself upright, her hair tangling up around her face, and set her eyes back on the treeline. No, she decided. That wasn’t normal. She trudged her way over for a closer look.

Soon enough, her statement was amended. This was a serious concern. The damage to the treeline was sporadic; inconsistent, too. Most were entirely unharmed. Some appeared to have taken a heavy impact; roots pulled halfway from the soil, trunks cracked as though hit by a speeding car. One had apparently exploded, the stump sticking jagged spikes in all directions at its point of termination, the remainder of the trunk and canopy leaning propped against another, less obliterated palm tree. Someone had fought a battle here. She glanced towards one of the closest points of damage; a trunk sliced cleanly in two across its breadth, the severed ends entirely smooth besides the scorch marks. She recognized that spell. It was one of hers.

Why don’t I remember this?

Jackie sat herself down on the severed stump, and tried to think. It was still groggy, but she was alert to it now. She searched her memory: days of searching on that miserable, empty planet, coming back to catch Peter at the resupply, sitting through his words, and working at her desk until her energy gave out. Then, she woke up on the beach. 

That wasn’t right. There was something else in there, a memory that seemed to pull away from her even as she reached for it. A flash of residual determination. A choked kind of joy. Scrambling through the treeline after an adversary whose face she couldn’t seem to conjure. He’d been so slippery. Impossible to keep pinned down. Why did that idea make her proud?

With an effort of will, Jackie pushed the memory further. If she could just put a face to her opponent-

It was like a screeching in her head. The piercing note of smooth glass scraping against itself. It set her teeth on edge, and in that moment of distraction, the image faded, leaving behind nothing but a pounding headache.

“… Someone’s wiped my memory. Right. Tylenol.”

Another trudge, back to her cabin. She opened the door, shrugged the rain-drenched coat from about her shoulders, and ambled in the direction of her medicine cupboard. 

Painkillers and hangover cures. The ultimate tool for living on your own.

She tugged open the cupboard door, grabbed a sheath of headache tablets from a shelf, and popped one out into her mouth, her free hand lowering towards the sink to grab some water.

That was when she saw it: A clump of reddish hair, sitting in the drain, coated with ocean slime and soap suds.

Something started screaming in her brain. A rush of joy and half-formed memory. The pain in her skull intensified. She swallowed the Tylenol dry. Today was clearly just that kind of day.

Whoever left this much behind was far too sloppy. They left so much for me to track.


Casper:

“Seriously dude, why didn’t you tell me you played guitar? We could have made a studio so much earlier.”

Of all the changes the past year had wrought on Casper’s life, his friendship with James Toranaga was the one he was most consistently okay with. James was kind, and fun, and had a caring streak to him that had helped to soothe Casper more than once. James was good.

He was also childish, self-centred, and had a level of ambient energy that often wore on Casper’s patience, especially when it hit manic pixie dream boy levels.

Casper hefted the latest box up off the ground, and sighed. Of course James wanted a recording space. Of course he did.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I just didn’t think of it.”

They were in the basement, clearing a section of the floor of James and Bex’s abandoned toys so as to better indulge James’ sudden and adamant resolution that they ought to form a band. 

James dumped a pair of his old action figures into the container by his leg, and raised an eyebrow. 

“For ten months?” he asked.

Casper shrugged.

“Yeah. I had stuff going on.”

James let out a put upon sigh.

“You’re gonna be a dork forever, you know that?”

Casper nodded gamely. Being called a ‘dork’ by James was still deeply funny in a way he would never admit to.

“Ok. Why this time, though?”

“Because.” James groaned. “You’re too shy. You won’t talk to more than one new person at a time. You pretend not to know about stuff unless it’s nerdy, and when you’ve got a super cool special skill, you hide it from everyone you know for ten whole months.”

Casper grinned.

“Guitar’s not that cool,” he murmured, trying for just the right level of indifference to irritate his friend. “It’s just a thing I do, man.”

“Are you kidding?” James asked. “Playing guitar is the coolest. Anyone who can do it is automatically like, ten percent hotter. Just, straight away.”

Casper snickered at that.

“Including me?” he asked, pretending not to notice the flustered note the words conjured in his friend’s mind. It was a crush. James was allowed. Wouldn’t stop Casper teasing him about it, though.

To his credit, James took the jab rather smoothly.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his tone a tad coy. “You did come off pretty cute when I saw you playing.”

Casper’s grin widened.

“No wonder you got so star-struck.”

“Did not!” James retorted playfully.

“Did too,” Casper teased. “You haven’t wanted to make out so hard since you asked me out.”

It was odd, he thought, how easily they talked like this. Any of the girls in his class, or even more intimidating, another boy, and Casper would’ve clammed up within a second, especially if it was someone cute. James was different. There was a stability to it; a knowledge that he could say the dumbest shit, and it wouldn’t matter. It was easier.

Even so, there were moments when one or other of them fumbled.

James went a little red, his gaze returning to the box he was still packing.

Crap.

“… Too far?” Casper asked.

“It’s fine,” James muttered. “Just… stuff.”

Casper nodded. He went back to shifting boxes, waiting for James to gather his thoughts. It didn’t take long.

“Tasha thinks I’m super into you,” James muttered, perhaps a minute later.

Casper almost shrugged.

I mean, you are.

Out loud, he merely grunted.

“Ok. And?”

James sighed.

“She thinks that’s why it didn’t work out with Cody.”

Casper felt a momentary thrill of satisfaction at that idea, followed shortly after by a touch of guilt.

C’mon, man. Don’t be that guy.

“Ok. So, what do you think?”

James took a moment there, his expression stumped, his mind frustrated.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “You’re the only person I can talk to. It kinda sucks thinking you’re hot sometimes.”

Casper considered that a moment. He bent down for the last of the boxes, belatedly helping James pack the last of the items, then picked it up. James was embarrassed. Not quite flustered. The kind of apprehension that came with waiting for rejection. Casper had to question that.

“I get that,” he said eventually. “It’s the same for me sometimes.”

James looked up at him, a note of surprise playing clear inside his head.

“It is?”

“‘Course it is,” Casper confirmed, careful with his words. It was different for James; the appeal of it was touched by notes of genuine infatuation, almost romantic. For Casper, it was simpler. He found James attractive, just like a dozen other people that he knew. But that was it. How to reassure without leading him on? “You’re cute, dude. I notice it sometimes. Kinda awkward when it’s the one guy you can’t lie to.”

“… Huh.” James thought about that for a while, uncertainty warring against something not quite hope. “So, when we went out- I mean. You seemed sorta… Not that into it.”

“I wasn’t,” Casper confirmed, bracing himself for the inevitable spike of disappointment, then pushing past it. “Honestly? I kinda just don’t have time for that right now. I mean. Dealing with Mom and Dad’s a lot. And you’re a lot sometimes, too, and it’s exhausting. And you’re cute, sure, but like, I don’t think I have the energy for that stuff right now.”

“Oh,” James said, taking a while to work through the implications there. “So… Not now, but maybe… Later?”

Casper considered that, then nodded.

“Yeah. Maybe.” He had to suppress a snort at the surge of hope that allowance caused in James. “You know, when life gets easier.”

“Right,” James agreed, a touch too hasty. “Later. Maybe. No promises.”

Casper snickered. “Yeah. Tasha’s so wrong,” he teased. “You’re not into me at all.

James’ retort was cut off by a quiet pop from the direction of the storage room in the basement’s far corner, followed near-immediately by a crash, and a torrent of muttered swearing. As one, the boys wheeled around towards the new intrusion, shields flaring brightly into place across their skin, James’ right hand raised in a casting stance. For his part, Casper extended his power outward, trying to get a sense of them. The mind he met was frantic; flooded with joy and desperation. Far less deadened than he remembered. Even so, he recognized the feel of it from the weeks following Charlie’s abduction.

“Whoever you are,” James called, his voice clear and even, in spite of the sudden nature of the new arrival. “Come out nice and slow, oka-”

“James,” Casper murmured. “I think it’s Charlie’s mom.”

“Oh,” James muttered, the momentary professionalism awkwardly falling aside. “Hiya, Jackie.”

Jackie didn’t answer, still just swearing quietly to herself. The boys looked between themselves, then, on a shared shrug, they edged forwards. It said something rather depressing that neither of them dropped their shields. Before either one of them could reach her, however, Jacqueline Vance stepped into view, expression panicked, eyes darting about the room, hands together, nails scrabbling frantically at her own wrists. She caught sight of James first.

“Hi, Jackie-” James tried again, only to be cut off as she finally addressed him.

“James!” Jackie breathed, rushing forwards, her hands grasping the boy by either shoulder even as he took an instinctive half-step back. “I need to speak to Peter. Where is he?”

Even without his powers, Casper could have read the desperation in every line of her. From the way she moved and spoke, to the sheer frantic energy with which she gripped onto James, his knees buckling slightly at the sheer pressure being exerted on his shoulders.

“What?” James stammered, wrong footed. “I don’t-”

“He’s at work,” Casper said, his own voice loud and clear, intentionally pulling Jackie’s full attention onto him. He dug in his pocket for his phone. “I’ll call him for you. Put James down. You’re scaring him.”

There was a momentary pause as Jackie seemed to register her own behaviour, then a muttered apology as she let James go. Casper opened up his contacts list to Peter’s page, and handed off his phone, grasping James’ hand in his and taking a few deliberate paces back.

“I wasn’t scared,” James muttered, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment bubbling in his head.

“Well, I was,” Casper answered, giving his hand a squeeze. “Maybe stick around and keep me safe?”

More embarrassment from James, this time mixed with flattery and a flustered kind of warmth. It did the trick, though. He was placated. He squeezed back.

“… Okay. Whatever.”

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Book Two: Winter. Prologue.

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Bermuda:

Peter’s teleport brought him into being a dozen or so yards from the cabin’s entrance. It wasn’t a big thing; just a four walled, prefab box placed on the micro-island years ago to house the equipment and solar cells they used to monitor the bridge-scar the whale had left behind when it fled. It had never been intended for long-term habitation.

Peter sighed, then hitched his rucksack a little higher on his back. He already knew she wouldn’t be talked down, but he owed it to her to keep on trying. He trudged the short distance through the pristine sand, and knocked on the cabin door.

No answer. Not surprising, really. She was probably out again, frantically searching, as was her way these past nine months. He dug the spare key out of his pocket, and let himself in.

What he found inside was neither encouraging, nor surprising. The place was a mess. To the left of the door sat a small office desk, built around the mess of radio equipment, scanning gear, and miscellaneous electronics that had been the initial purpose of the outpost, now buried under half-eaten food containers and what had to be at least half a dozen empty liquor bottles. To the right, the small cot designed to give at least nominal comfort to whoever drew the month-long monitoring duty. The sheets were unmade. He suspected at a glance that they hadn’t been changed since he himself had done so on his prior resupply.

Peter took a deep breath, lowered his rucksack to the floor, and reluctantly prepared a garbage bag. He likely had some time before she came back. He could at least try and make her situation a bit more liveable. He spent the next half hour hard at work. The discarded rations and bottles were shoved into the garbage bag. The used clothes that littered the floor went into a duffel, replaced with a stack of fresh ones. He re-made his partner’s bed.

He was part way through restocking the cabin’s fridge when the sounds from the shoreline alerted him to a portal being opened. He continued his work. He’d just finished placing the last box of instant tortellini when Jacqueline Vance stepped inside. He turned to look at her. It wasn’t good.

Jackie looked as though she hadn’t slept in days. Or bathed. Or even bothered sitting down. Her hair was an unkempt mess, her skin a mottled mismatch of wind-dried and sunburned. There were shadows under her eyes, of the sort that only formed when one was worked beyond exhaustion. She barely even looked at him.

“Hi, Peter,” she muttered, trudging past him and pulling open the fridge he’d just finished stocking. She pulled out a box at random, and shoved it into the microwave without looking at the contents. Then, she moved to the computer.

“Been a while, Jackie,” Peter murmured. “How are you holding up?”

His partner grunted.

“I’m fine.” She tapped the power button on the computer case, before lifting a voice recorder from the desk, and speaking into it. “Expedition report number two hundred and sixty four. No signs of activity in areas B-12, B-9, or B-14. New landmass identified one hundred and forty eight miles south by southwest, no signs of habitation beyond native flora and fauna. Weather patterns consistent with projected range. Tertiary moon remained in a state of partial lunar eclipse for twelve minutes, eighteen seconds estimated. Report concludes.”

The microwave beeped. Jackie ignored it.

“You don’t seem fine,” Peter said evenly. No response. He leaned his back against the fridge. “James asked me to give you a hug from him, next time I came to see you. Says he’s worried about you. I’m worried too.” Again, he was ignored.

The computer finished powering on. Jackie shifted her attention to the keyboard, logging in, setting up tabs, eyes drifting over scanning data from dozens of machines. She started mouthing silently to herself as she worked.

Peter took a breath, and tried again.

“Come home, Jackie. Please. You can stay with my family while you find a new place. We’ll get you back on your feet. I’ve checked with Sarah, and she agrees. James and Bex would love to-”

“Did you bring any whiskey?” Jackie asked, pushing the computer keyboard away with a jerk like she’d seen a spider, then shifting from her seat towards the microwave.

Peter hesitated.

“… No,” he answered. “I didn’t. I cleared out the last of your supply here, as well. It’s not healthy, Jackie. You know how many bottles I found empty?”

In response, Jackie only grunted. She pulled the now hot container of prawn tagliatelle from the cooker, and tugged the seal open with her teeth.

“It’s fine,” she muttered. “I’m heading to the mainland in a couple hours. I can pick up some more then.”

Peter resisted the urge to growl. This was Jackie. He owed her better.

“… How goes the search, Jackie?”

For once, his partner actually responded.

“Nothing yet.” She shrugged, pulling a disposable fork from a tub on a countertop, and ladling some of the pasta into her mouth.

“… That’s because Charlie’s dead, Jackie.”

It felt wrong. Here he was, trying to crush the hope out of one of his closest friends. But, if it brought her home, he’d do it. She went back to ignoring him.

“He’s dead,” he repeated, hating himself. “The Whale took him, and he’s gone. There’s nothing out there for you to find. Just his bones.”

No response. Jackie returned her attention to the computer.

Peter swore to himself.

“He wouldn’t want this for you,” he tried. “You know that, right? It’s killing you. You’ve been searching for nine months. What have you even fou-”

“Nice talking to you, Peter,” Jackie murmured, not looking at him. “Thanks for stopping by.”

Peter frowned.

“Don’t try and shoo me away, Jackie. I care about you. Come hom-”

Jackie waved a hand, and Peter blinked away, held in limbo for the few seconds it would take to return him to New York. She wondered briefly if he’d bother trying to return. She could always send him back again. Nine months wandering the scapes of that other world, tearing open portals between dimensions on the daily, had done wonders for her powers. She’d outlast him easily, and he knew it, unless he was willing to burn through some of his precious stockpiled energy to force the issue.

A few minutes passed in silence, just the lapping of waves against the shore outside. He didn’t bother teleporting back. She returned to her work.

“My son’s alive, Peter,” she said to no one in particular. “He has to be.”


New York:

Peter blinked back into being in Jackie’s office, that wide section of floor space kept perpetually clear to allow for easy use of portals. He swore, then grabbed for the flask about his belt. If she wanted to make him push for this, he would oblige. He gave the contents a shake to see how much he had, unscrewed the cap, and lifted it to his lips.

Then he stopped.

What would it change? She wasn’t going to listen, and pushing any further would just drive her deeper inside her shell. He couldn’t even blame her. He’d been much the same when James was lost. The only difference was that her son had never made it home.

‘And that was your fault.’

He threw the flask across the office with a yell. It knocked a picture off the wall, its precious contents spilling out across the floor.

Through the clear glass of Jackie’s office windows, he saw one of the interns staring in at him, a look of shock sitting clear as day on the young man’s face. Peter glared at the kid until he went away, then tried to force himself back to calm.

“We were so. Fucking. Close.”


Bermuda:

The portal snapped open in near-silence, besides the sounds of new waves and winds crossing the divide from a different shoreline. The boy who stepped through the aperture did so with trepidation. Things felt wrong on this side; subtly so. The sand had a different texture beneath his feet. This ocean had an unfamiliar smell to it. Seaweed and saltwater. The night was too dark here, the planet’s solitary moon providing nowhere near the light needed to navigate comfortably in the absence of the sun.

His companion looked around him through his eyes, and provided an assurance. This place was roughly as it remembered. He wasn’t sure whether that should comfort him.

The boy steeled himself. He wasn’t here for familiarity, nor comfort. He was here to speak to her. He glanced back through the portal, towards waters beneath which, he knew, his companion watched and waited. It cared for him. He knew that with every fibre of himself. That was why he had to do this.

Across their shared space, his companion reached out one more time. Gentle. Plaintive. Childish, in a way. It hated when he left it on its own.

He met its touch, and offered reassurance.

‘I’ll be back soon. I promise.’

Reluctant acceptance. The hope that he wouldn’t be gone too long.

He snapped the portal shut between them with a thought, and shuddered. He hated this part; the disconnect; being alone inside his head again. Around him, the world changed. Just a little. The night air grew chill. The sand beneath his feet grew a fraction rougher. A hundred tiny protections afforded him by his companion, all severed. He was on his own now. Something about that felt very isolating.

He pushed his focus back to the task at hand. The sooner he was done here, the sooner he’d return. He panned his gaze about the shoreline, and, nestled in the gloom, he found the cabin.

He stepped forward, bare feet crunching quietly in the foreign sand. Closer to, the place had a light to it, the faint glow of a computer monitor half visible through a fly-screen doorway. There was a figure slumped in front of it, not moving. He felt his heart catch a moment on catching sight of her. He shook himself.

Another silent portal brought him inside the cabin, the interior lit momentarily by a flare of brilliant indigo, before returning to near black. He gazed down at the figure by the desk. He had to snicker, just a little. She’d fallen asleep against the keyboard, an open word document flickering on the screen as page after page of j’s scrawled themselves across it.

She was a mess, he realized. This place had a different odor to the outside air. Petrified food and liquor, harsh against a nose that barely recognized the smells. Her hair was matted. A part of him pointed out he could hardly judge. His hair was a mess now, too.

For the first time in near enough a year, the boy was suddenly self-conscious. He glanced around himself for a mirror, and found one sitting above the sink. He tiptoed over to it, and looked himself over in the dark.

His hair was slick with oil and water, hanging down about his shoulders in a loose, unintelligible tangle. He was pretty sure he’d been supposed to keep his hair tidy in the past. Impressions were important. He leaned in close, trying to see as best he could in the bare light of the computer screen, and began awkwardly trying to give himself a haircut.

It wasn’t going well. The powers he’d spent his months gleaning and refining from his companion were not suited for such a small scale task. He’d focused near exclusively on things that allowed him to fight, or move, or defend himself. None of it was really suitable for hair. He found a spell eventually, an amber spark that, when rendered down as small as he could go, made for a serviceable cutting tool. He set to work, shearing lock after lock of damp, slime encrusted hair into the sink where it sat in a clog atop the drain.

Then, he squeezed himself some hand soap, and started lathering it through what remained of his rough-shorn hair.

It was as he leaned down beneath the tap to rinse himself off that the woman finally awoke.

“Mmh. Who’s there?”

The boy started, flinching upright by instinct, only to crack the back of his skull against the faucet.

He let out a yelp of pain, and a stream of muttered swearwords that had, by this point in his isolation, become the primary part of his vocabulary. In a haphazard fashion, he ducked behind the short table at the centre of the cabin.

A fluorescent globe flickered on above him, flooding the room with too-white light. When the woman spoke again, she was awake, her voice alert.

“Whoever you are, you have five seconds to show yourself before I attack. Five. Four. Three-”

The boy let out a frustrated sigh, and showed himself.

The woman stared.

“Charlie?” she breathed.

“Hi, Mom,” he mumbled, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment. “It’s been a while, huh.”

His mother didn’t speak. She barely even seemed to breathe. She moved forwards. He took a half step back, but it didn’t matter. He was pulled into a hug regardless. He winced. He hadn’t wanted this. He’d feared that it would just make leaving harder, but no. Instead, it was just uncomfortable. Constrictive in a way that had once been comforting. Nevertheless, he hugged her back.

“… Missed you.”

“Am I dreaming?” his mother asked. “… No, no, this feels real. I’m-I’m lucid. I’m awake. How did you get back from there?”

“Same way you did,” he muttered. “I made a door… Please let go of me.” His mother didn’t seem to hear him, so he reluctantly allowed a few more seconds of contact, before trying to shrug her off. She clung on all the tighter, so instead, he teleported. The world snapped briefly in and out, and he was deposited on the shore outside the cabin.

It was better out here. Able to feel the waves lapping at his toes; the sand beneath his feet, unfamiliar as it was. Why was it all so disconnected? He sat down in the surf, and waited for his mother to collect herself. It didn’t take long. He was staring at the moon again when she opened up the door to join him. She had tear-marks on her cheeks, deep shadows under her eyes.

She didn’t come too close this time, at least aware enough to have registered his discomfort. She kept her distance, squatting in the sand a half dozen feet away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice quiet.

‘None of this feels real anymore.’

He didn’t say that. Instead, he gave her the only truth he could.

“I’m okay, Mom,” he murmured, gazing out over the water. “I came back here so you’d know I was okay.” he took a deep breath. “But I’m not staying.”

“What?” his mother scoffed, either unable or simply unwilling to comprehend it. “Of course you’re staying. You’re home. I’m never letting you be taken away from me again.”

Charlie took a while to answer that. He drew his knees up against his chest, gently hugging them. Why was it so hard to meet her gaze?

“I don’t-” he hesitated, trying to find the words. “I don’t belong here anymore, Mom. The moon’s too dark. The sand’s all wrong. Even hugging my Mom is gross. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m not staying, and  I’m not coming back… I came here cuz I want you to stop searching for me.”

To her credit, his mother kept her calm. She didn’t shout, or beg, or demand he change his mind. Instead, she chuckled, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes with her shirt sleeve.

“Where will you go?” she asked.

“Back where I’ve been. With my friend. It… It cares about me.”

Jackie nodded her head a few times, and sniffed, tears still gently streaming down her cheeks.

“You know I’m not strong enough to let you leave, right?” her expression gained a touch of sorrow. “But I’m more than strong enough to make you stay.”

Charlie looked away from her right then. It hurt, somewhere in his chest.

“… No you’re not.”

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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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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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