Care: 6.2

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James:

For the first few hours, James simply seethed. This kind of anger was a new experience for him; unfamiliar; a rage borne not only from indignation, but care. It caught him off guard; unprepared.

It started small; inconsequential, really, just a note of frustration buried under a heaping mound of concern; the little voice inside his mind asking why Casper couldn’t have just told him. Then, when Father had gone, and James had been provided reassurance that his friend was still okay, that fear had slowly but surely began to drain away. Some of it, most of it, even, had just drained cleanly out through his feet, disturbing nothing as it passed, and leaving only a faint exhaustion in its wake. Some of his concern, however, had stuck around, and as he watched his friend’s ever more overt displays of frustration, those feelings had started finding different ways to flow.

It was when they were finally allowed in to see his grandpa that James realised he had to punch something.

Preferably something with a picture of Casper’s face on the front.

‘How could he be so. Freaking. Dumb?’

For his part, Casper had ignored it, avoiding James’ gaze just as he avoided everyone else. If anything, that just made the anger worse.

When they got home, there was no talk of going to school. School stopped being a thing during emergencies, apparently. The morning was spent with the three of them clustered together on the couch; watching a perpetual parade of Disney movies under his mother’s sporadic supervision; observing out of the corners of their eyes as a stream of sombre adults came in and out of the house, clad in suits and casual clothes alike, arguing quietly in the background. In that environment, even Bex somehow managed to be terse.

Some of the adults were more notable than the rest. A teacher from school, worry drawn in bold across her face, some folks from Peter’s office; even Charlie’s mom, looking more ragged and unkempt than James had ever seen her; a pair of deep shadows set beneath her eyes. He gave her a hug.

No one commented when Casper’s dad arrived. Peter went to meet him on the street, still not willing to let him in the house. James watched out of the corner of his eye as the men talked; Ray’s sporadic glances through the window at his son going from sad to mortified. Casper kept his eyes fixed on the TV, his eyes a little glassy. James tried to let his anger go at that. He did not succeed.

It was perhaps an hour or so after that when James decided he was done. He just couldn’t keep it all inside him any more.

He waited just long enough for Sarah to step back in, seating herself within cuddling range of Bex, before he spoke, his voice quiet.

“We can have this fight here, or we can do it in my room. Your call.”

Both Bex and Sarah turned their gaze to him at that, his sister confused, his mother carefully neutral. Casper didn’t move.

‘…Fine. We’ll do it here.’

James opened his mouth to speak. Before he got the first word out, however, Casper pushed himself off the couch, muttering something that could have been a curse, before stepping out towards the hall.

“C’mon,” he muttered. “Let’s just get it over with.”

The two of them moved through to James’ room in silence, neither of them wanting to be heard. When they eventually arrived, James found himself sitting on his bed, his hands balling into fists between his legs. For a while, Casper paced, moving from place to place around the room in search of somewhere comfortable, before coming to rest against the door, glaring at the floor beneath his feet.

“Well?” the older boy asked, his voice almost venomous. “Let’s hear it. Go ahead. Let yourself feel all smart by telling me I’m wrong.”

James looked across at him. In themselves, those words stung more than he thought they would. They felt wrong, coming from Casper’s mouth.

He didn’t reply. He tried to, but he couldn’t work out how. He wanted to yell. He wanted to cry. When he didn’t speak, Casper simply glared at him.

Minutes passed like that. Maybe longer. What the heck was he supposed to say?

In the end, it wasn’t finally reaching a decision that spurred James to speech; it was Casper letting out a little growl, and grabbing for the door handle.

It was just as he pulled the door open that James spoke, his voice quiet.

“I think… I think I’m gay.”

Casper stopped moving halfway out the door. Then, he swore quietly to himself, and stepped back inside the room. He closed the door behind him, then slumped to the floor on his rear.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I know.”

James sniffed. “It’s terrifying.”

“Why?”

“Cuz every time I think about a boy I like-” he swallowed. It did nothing at all to rid him of the lump inside his throat. “It… It makes me remember the stuff that happened. It makes me think about how scared I was. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“… Yeah.”

What came next was the hardest sentence James had ever had to say. “I-… There’s this little bit of me that thinks… Maybe if he never touched me; maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. Maybe we’d be talking about girls right now.”

Casper shot him a scowl. There was less anger to it, now. Just a little.

“You know that’s not how it works, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” James wiped his nose with a sleeve. “I still think it sometimes, though.”

For a while, the two of them were quiet. When Casper spoke, his tone was far softer.

“I’m sorry I pushed you about that,” he said. “I really am.”

“Yeah, sure,” James replied. “It’s done now, anyways.” He took a breath, then gave his friend a cold look. “So, what the heck is going on with you and Father?”

At that, Casper just groaned.

“I don’t even know,” he muttered. “I think he’s trying to seduce me? I don’t think he’s had many people say no to him before.”

“But why are you letting him try?”

Casper shrugged.

“Like I said to your grandma. He’s almost good, you know? He wants to help. I think he really thinks he is helping… I dunno. I just wanna find out how he got so broken.”

James shook his head.

“Why do you care?”

Casper sighed.

“Cuz I want him to be better.”

James cocked his head at that. Something in the phrasing felt odd.

“You don’t… You don’t like him, do you?” Casper didn’t respond, his cheeks flushing slightly. James shuddered. “Cas, that’s just wrong.”

“It’s not like what you’re thinking,” Casper replied. “He-… When he used his mind control thing… It made him look… pretty. Like, really, really pretty. That never really went away. And it’s… I dunno. It’s weird, when you can feel that someone likes you, you know? It’s like…” he looked across at James’ face, and must have registered the disgust written plain as day across it, because he raised a hand in a weird, semi-placating gesture. “Look, I was never gonna act on it, okay? I’m not stupid. I’m never gonna let him get that close, and I’m not gonna give him that chance to take over. I don’t trust him. I’m never gonna trust him.”

James didn’t know what to say to that. It made him want to throw up. For a while, he simply stared.

“If I asked you,” he said eventually, his voice almost pleading. “As your friend, to break it off… Would you do it?”

Casper’s gaze shifted to the floor.

“… Yeah, probably.” James opened his mouth at that, but the other boy forestalled him. “Look, I know this sounds wrong, and I get that you’re worried, but-”

“Really, Cas? Cuz it sounds like a total creeper’s trying to make you like him, and it sounds like it’s working. You can’t make that not sound wrong!”

Once again, Casper groaned.

“What would it take to make you be okay with this?”

“I’d be okay with it if you told Father you never wanted to see him again.” James thought about it for a moment. “And then he moved to Seattle. And stopped existing.”

He wasn’t quite sure why the words made Casper laugh.

“Look,” he said. “You’re right. I could break it off. Maybe I even should. But I don’t want to, and even if I did, I don’t think it’d make him stop. You haven’t seen inside his head. He’s pretty determined.”

“… You know that doesn’t make it any better, right?” James asked. “I mean, I get it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t make it okay. I think we’re messing with stuff way, way bigger than we are.”

Casper snorted.

“It’s hard not to when the big stuff follows you home.”

James snickered.

“I know, right?” He slumped backwards at that, letting his body flop down across his mattress and gazing at the ceiling. “… You know what the biggest thing I learned today is?”

“No idea,” said Casper. “What?”

“That I don’t really know you anymore, do I?” He looked down just in time to see the older boy shrug.

“Sure you do. I’m the same me I always was.”

James rolled his eyes.

“Okay, sure. But, like, I don’t know what you can do now, do I? I mean, when I said you couldn’t help at the hospital, I meant it. But then off you went and you-” he made a grappling gesture in the air with his hands. “-You helped, you know? I had no idea you could do that.”

“Dude,” Casper chuckled. “I know you didn’t mean it that way, but ouch.”

James ignored him.

“My point is, I didn’t know you could help me cuz of secrets. So, maybe secrets suck. And maybe, if we get rid of them, we can help each other more.”

The silence that followed lasted a long while. When Casper finally responded, he did so with a sigh.

“So that’s the deal, huh?” he asked. “No more secrets? You’re gonna tell me your side too?”

James nodded.

“Yeah. That’s the deal.”

“You promise not to freak out?”

“Only if you promise too.”

A snort.

“Yeah,” said Casper. “I promise.”

The older boy closed his eyes. After a second or two, so did James, relaxing back against his bed.

“… So,” he murmured. “Who goes first?”


Father:

Father looked up at the side of the building, and for the second time that night, pulled out his phone to check the address.

‘They’re making it hard to come and see you. Can we meet up tonight?’

He scrolled past the first of Casper’s messages, and onto the time and place. He frowned.

Well, it was certainly the right location. But why in the name of all had Casper wanted to meet him here? And at one AM, no less. He shook his head. Perhaps it was some effort to keep the boy’s caretakers off his tail. He supposed he’d soon find out. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and stepped inside.

The place was positively derelict; dry rot and summer baked mildew stains crawling across cracked concrete walls, the floor covered in layers of detritus left behind by generations of either vagrants, or teenagers using the place as a hideaway. Father cast a cursory glance over the lower floor; empty, but for a rusted through freight elevator, and a set of industrial steps leading to the second level. No one in sight.

“Casper,” he called, letting the door slide to a close behind him and stepping towards the stairs. “You around? I know I’m a bit early.”

It was around when he caught sight of the steel production table that currently sat wedged above the staircase, the heavy metal handrails warping into a glove around it, that he received a reply.

“He’s not here,” called a voice; young, male, unfamiliar. “Come on up. I wanted to talk to you alone.”

Father raised an eyebrow at that. Strangeness upon strangeness. He paused at the foot of the stairs, and tapped his foot lightly on the floor. The spell that followed was something like a pulse; a wave of perception that pushed itself first across the floor, then out into the superstructure like a sonar burst. A second later, he had the rough layout of the place.

The floor above was open-plan; nothing but work stations from side to side of the complex, barring a small cluster of rooms to one corner that had once been either offices or storerooms. One of those rooms held life; the pulse flowing up through a pack of what felt like rodents. On the roof above, he could feel something human sized. He raised an eyebrow at that. It was odd. The voice had come from the factory floor, yet his spell said the area was empty. Was the person on the roof projecting themselves?

He took a moment to ready a barrier, then proceeded up the stairs. He found the answer to his confusion soon enough.

‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Not projecting. Flying. No surfaces for the spell to move through.’

The speaker was a boy; a familiar one, too, shaggy black curls framing an almond shaped face, his skin tone a touch more olive than the standard post-european hue. A petite frame and slender build not at all concealed by an oversized hoodie and baggy pajama pants. Eleven or twelve, at most.

‘Cute.’

Out loud, Father simply said:

“I know you. James, right? The new Toranaga boy.”

For a moment, the boy didn’t respond, simply gazing at him, arms crossed, his face caught in an expression that wasn’t quite hostile enough to be a glare, but that Father still wished could be a little closer to a smile. The boy must look so pretty when he smiled.

“Yeah,” James said eventually. “That’s right.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” As he spoke, he resumed his climbing of the stairs, reaching the top, and beginning to cross the distance between them. He only got a step or two before the boy raised a hand, palm out.

“Wait,” he called. “I want you to promise you won’t use that happy stuff on me. Casper said you wouldn’t do it if you promised.”

Father frowned at that, his confusion touched by a momentary note of annoyance, but he nodded.

“No need to worry yourself about that. I happen to know your family would hunt me to the ends of the earth if I tried to use my light on you. Not that it would harm you if I did. Nonetheless, I won’t use it. I promise.”

He waited a moment for James to respond. When none was forthcoming, he took a tentative step forward. The boy raised no objection, so he walked to a space some twelve or so feet from the boy, and seated himself at a work-station. As he moved, he noted the old traceries on the floor, the faint sour tang hanging in the air. The site of a ritual? Yet another set of questions to be added to the pile.

He took a second to get comfortable on his makeshift seat, and shot the boy a smile.

“Well, you’ve certainly piqued my interest,” he said, his tone light. “Not everyday I find myself in a ritual site in the middle of Manhattan with a flying boy inside and someone hiding on the roof.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the ceiling high above. “That’s a fascinating power you have there, by the way.”

Again, for a while, James seemed content to simply gaze at him, arms folded, eyebrows drawing together in an oh so kissable scowl. Had Father expected him to be surprised, he would have been disappointed. Eventually, he spoke.

“I wanted to talk to you about Casper.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you won’t do anything to hurt him.”

‘Oh,’ Father realized, a grin spreading unbidden across his lips. ‘My word. He came here to protect his friend. That is so very sweet.’

“Nothing of the sort,” he murmured, raising a hand as if to wave the idea away. “I promise you. Hurting Casper is the last thing I would want.” On a spur of idle curiosity, he gestured towards the boy’s still levitating form. “So, that power of yours. Have you had the opportunity to develop it? I can’t imagine you’ve had it long.”

Another hesitation, James apparently deciding whether or not to reply, before giving him a resigned shrug.

“About a month,” he admitted. “Started training a couple weeks ago. So what is your plan for Casper?”

Father chuckled.

“Do I need one? He’s a nice boy. A talented mage. Can’t I just enjoy his company?”

“It’s more than just hanging out if you have to bribe him with a house. Is it cuz you can’t control him?”

Father sighed, trying as best as he could to push his disappointment aside. He had hoped that this younger Toranaga might not be as judgemental as the rest.

“My light doesn’t control people, James,” he replied, his tone deliberately even. “Happiness isn’t that overwhelming of a thing.” He paused to allow space for a reply. None was forthcoming, so he continued. “But, yes. I will admit, Casper’s reaction worries me. I don’t enjoy the idea that my light could cause a person pain. I want to find out why.”

“Okay,” James muttered. “Well… What if I told you. Would you promise to leave him alone?”

Father raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you know?”

For a moment, the boy’s scowl grew very dark.

“… Yes.”

“Then tell me.”

Before Father had even finished, James was shaking his head.

“No,” he replied. “First, you promise not to talk to him again.”

Now it was Father’s turn to scowl.

“Why should I?” he asked. “I’m not going to cause him any harm. I’ve never been anything but kind.”

“He told me about you kissing him,” the boy snapped. “I saw his phone. I know you asked for pictures! I know you wanna-” for a moment, it seemed like James might gag. Father waited for him to finish. He did not. He simply glared.

“I want to what?” Father replied eventually, his irritation having built itself to a peak. Why did they always have to judge without bothering to understand? “To fuck him? Yes. Yes I do. And if that’s what he wants too, then what’s so wrong with it?”

Whatever James had intended as his response, it seemed he couldn’t get it out. Father wasn’t sure he’d ever seen rage like that on someone so young. He opened his mouth, attempted to speak, but all that came out was a sickened sort of croak. Two more attempts; still nothing. Eventually, the boy raised a shaking hand to his face.

At first, Father thought he was scratching himself, a momentary concern flitting through his mind as he watched the fingers dig. Then, James’ nails found what they were looking for. He peeled the covering loose, the marks of purity and pain on full display.

“That’s what’s wrong with it,” he muttered. “Asshole.”

It was at that moment when Father’s anger failed. How could he blame the boy for judging him after that? James had no way of knowing any better.

“Oh, little one,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how scared you must ha-”

“Shut up,” James spat. “All I want to hear from you is that you’ll stay away from Casper.”

Father sighed.

“James,” he murmured. “You need to understand. I don’t want to hurt him the way that they hurt you. I don’t want anything if he doesn’t want it too. I would rather die than do that to him. To anyone. But I cannot promise not to speak to him again. All I can promise is that it isn’t what you think.”

While he had been speaking, James had simply watched him, a cold kind of anger burning in his eyes. When he was done, the boy let out a huff.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You really are broken, aren’t you.” Father took the insult on the cheek. He couldn’t bring himself to blame him. Eventually, however, James spoke again. “… There’s no way for me to beat you, is there?” he asked, trying to mask a sniffle. “You’re too much stronger than me, right?”

Father shook his head, his heart heavy.

“It makes me sad that you would want to,” he replied. “But no. There’s nothing. You don’t have nearly the experience to fight a man like me.”

James wiped his nose with a sleeve.

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I figured.” The silence that followed that was a unique kind of awkward, broken only when the boy continued: “That’s why I’ve been charging this one up.”

It may not have often looked it, but Father was a very agile man. Hundreds of years of practical combat experience, combined with physical training, and a natural reaction speed had rendered him about as fast as an unempowered human was capable of being. He dodged the boy’s opening strike with ease.

Dodging, however, was a response best suited to fists. James’ volley was closer to a freight train.

For the first half-second or so, Father was physically blinded; his shield splitting into so many fragmented shards of light that his vision was nought but bloom.

What that meant, unfortunately, was that Father lacked the context to recognize his body striking the far wall; the gust sending him through concrete, brick and steel like a bullet shot through plaster board.

What he did register, however, was the sound of a second wall crumbling underneath him. He struck the ground, bounced, and collided with something new.

When the stars finally stopped snapping before his eyes, Father became aware of the inside of a shed, the hull of a construction vehicle now wrapped around his shoulders, and the taste of blood inside his mouth.

A little groggy, he turned his face to look at the hole in the wall through which he’d come. He could see the sky now, along with the figure standing on the roof of the building from which he’d been thrown, cast in silhouette against the stars. He watched, slowly trying to pull his thoughts together, as the figure stepped from the rooftop, and dropped to ground level, landing on her feet with a thud, before making her way towards him in a sprint. He had just enough time to register a teenage girl with a baseball bat, before he found his body being wrenched from the chassis of the vehicle, and carried back outside. He felt the handle of something metal underneath his chin.

From his new perspective, he had an unimpeded view as the youngest mage of the Toranaga bloodline floated into view through the hole in the factory wall.

Even if Father had still had his senses at that moment, he wouldn’t have dared to fight. There was something about the way James hung there, the power seeping from his eyes like a mist of glowing tourmaline, that made him seem almost otherworldly.

“Father,” the elementalist called down. “I want you to listen to me really, really carefully. If you ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

“Also,” said the girl currently holding him aloft. “Just so you know. I was totally filming that.”


Author’s Note: I’m going to be honest. I am not 100% sure about this chapter. I worry that I might be presenting my subject matter in a somehow flawed manner, which I really do not want to do, particularly with issues of such real-world gravity. I hope that it’s just nerves, but if you can see what you think to be a flaw, please let me know.

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Care: 6.1

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys! Finally, we get to embark on arc six. This is one I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time. Now that we are here, it is once again time for the next Bonus Chapter vote. I’m trying something a little new this time. Instead of letting people vote on literally every character that has appeared in story thus far, I have selected several potential options for bonus chapters for y’all to choose from. The link can be found here, or you can just click on the Bonus Chapter Votes tab in the site menu. Until next time, guys.

Casper:

To call the silence that surrounded Casper awkward would have been the understatement of the month. Even the receptionist was staring; Tsuru was doing so with an intensity that bordered on hostility. For his part, Casper picked up his strawberry milk and drained it dry, before stepping up out of his uncomfortable excuse for a chair, and crossing the room to throw the empty carton in the bin.

He returned to his chair. Everyone was still staring.

“So,” Tsuru asked, her tone one of barely suppressed anger. “Has he fucked you yet?”

He leaned back against the seat cushion, and looked her in the eye.

“It’s not like that.”

“It’s Father,” Peter replied, managing his voice at least somewhat better than his mother. “It’s always like that. Do you honestly expect me to believe he hasn’t tried-”

“Oh, he tried,” Casper admitted. “I said no.”

“Bullshit,” replied Peter and Tsuru in unison. The two of them looked at one another. Peter gestured for his mother to proceed.

“You don’t say no to Father,” she growled. “No one says no to Father. Especially not an untrained, adolescent boy.”

“I’m not untrained,” he replied coldly. In any other mindset, the look she gave him then would have terrified him. He looked around. He still didn’t like the idea of telling them about his power, but how else to show them? He spotted a flowerpot by the reception desk, and stood, crossing the room towards it. “Plastic. Darn. I don’t suppose anyone has some flower seeds?”

He had intended it as a joke. A lame one, in retrospect. What he had not expected was for both Peter and Tsuru to begin digging in their pockets.

“Come here,” Peter muttered, pulling out his wallet and unzipping a small compartment on the side. Casper stepped towards him, and the older man shook a small selection of seeds into his palm.

“Thanks.”

With that, he returned to his seat, looked around for something suitably disposable, and settled on his half-eaten pastry. He picked it up, stuffed one of the smaller seeds into the casing, and focused on his spell.

Three weeks ago, this power had been almost inaccessible, like doing deadlifts with his brain. In those three weeks, however, he’d had the time to practice. 

For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the pastry’s exterior began to tear, exuding at first just a single flower blossom, then significantly more. Roots, leaves, stems. Casper kept going until the thing was a half foot wide, roots and creepers trailing around his hand and halfway up his arm. He could have pushed it further, but they got the point.

He peeled his hand free of the flower’s stems, and lobbed it lightly across at Tsuru. She caught it, examined it for a moment, then passed it to her son.

“Fine,” she murmured, apparently making a little more effort at maintaining some form of calm. “So you’re not a total novice. I still don’t think for a second that you could say no to a man like Father. I know trained combat mages who couldn’t manage that.”

“She has a point, you know,” Peter agreed, pressing a finger to one of the flower blossoms, only for it to begin shrinking in his hand, returning itself to a seed. “I don’t care if you can use your spells or not. Father has mind co-”

“Mind Control,” Casper cut him off. “Yeah. He does. It doesn’t work on me.”

“Doesn’t work on you?” Tsuru laughed, her voice sounding almost sickened. “Is that what he made you think? Casper. It’s magic. There’s no such thing as being immune.”

“I’m not immune,” he replied. “It just doesn’t work on me.”

At that, it was Peter’s turn to groan. 

“God, don’t you realize how inane that sounds?” he asked, his voice growing steadily louder, before Sarah’s hand on his leg prompted him to take a breath. “Look,” he muttered. “I get it. It’s like a drug. I’m guessing he found you when things were at their worst with your dad. When your life was sitting at its very lowest point. And he made you feel good. I’ll bet from there it was just easier to tell yourself you had a choice. That it was okay. That you hadn’t really lost anything.”

For a few moments, Casper simply stared at him.

“It’s a lie, Casper,” Peter continued. “You need to get away.”

After a long, long quiet, Casper finally replied:

“You really don’t get it, do you?” The older man opened his mouth, but Casper cut him off. “Shut up. You have no idea, okay? None. You think it just makes you happy? No. It’s the best thing you’ve ever felt. Could ever feel. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been, and I never want it to happen to me again!” It was Casper’s own voice that was rising now. James was stirring by his side. He didn’t care. “You don’t know shit. That power doesn’t just make you into a junkie. That stuff makes you so damn happy that you stop being who you were. You stop being you around him. You turn into some broken kind of child so horribly in love that you’d let him stab you in the gut with a smile.” He had to stop a moment there to set the memory aside. “And if you’re like me, if you’re lucky, then there’ll be just enough of the real you left inside to scream for it to stop.”

The other three just gazed at him at that. Beside him, James shifted back to consciousness with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled blearily. “Why are people yelling?”

No one answered him. After a moment, Peter dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have-”

“No,” Casper agreed. “You shouldn’t.”

“When did it happen?” Sarah asked, something indefinable in her voice.

“… The day before I came to live with you,” he muttered. “Back when the elves attacked. I’ve seen him a couple times since then.”

“Why, though?” Tsuru asked. “If you really think he can’t control you, then why do you let him in?”

Casper laughed at that.

“Cuz number one, he’s a freaking stalker. Even after I got away from him, he just tracked me back to where I was staying. And number two… we made a deal, okay? He gets to spend a couple hours with me every week, and I get-” He stopped. Why did he have to go and say that? “… Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? We agreed to hang out a little every week as long as he kept his hands to himself.”

James was fully upright now, looking between Casper and his family with a growing degree of concern.

“The hell are you guys talking about?” the other boy asked, frowning.

“Your grandad’s gonna be fine,” Casper grunted. “I got my teacher to have a look at him.”

“Casper,” Peter asked, his tone deliberately steady. “I promise not to judge you, but what exactly did Father offer you?”

Casper tried to glare at him. It hurt a bit too much to do it right.

“… Food,” he admitted. “Money. An apartment. Somewhere to stay in case I needed to run away again.”

“Why would you need to run away again?” Sarah asked, just a little hesitant.

Casper turned his gaze to the floor.

“Cuz I still don’t trust you.” He thanked the stars that Sarah was too far away for him to feel with his powers all wrapped in. The hurt emanating from James was bad enough. After a few seconds of it, he growled. “Look. I don’t need this from any of you, okay? Whether you like what I did or not, none of you were there, and everything I did just saved the old man’s life. You don’t get to judge me.”

“No one’s judging you, Casper,” said Sarah quietly. 

“Bullshit.”

“We’re not,” Tsuru replied. “You can’t judge someone for being mind controlled. None of it’s their fault.”

“So you’re calling me a victim, then,” Casper snapped. “You think that’s not a judgement? Go ahead and tell James that. See how that works out.”

The moment Casper said it, he regretted it. Once again, the room went very still.

“Screw you, Casper,” said Peter quietly. Sarah just tapped him on the shoulder.

“Go wait outside,” she said, pointing at the door. “It’s not about us. You need to cool off.”

With a mutter of something Casper couldn’t quite catch, Peter stood. Before he’d left the room, however, James’ voice spoke up:

“I want you to apologise to my parents,” he said, his own voice perfectly clear.

A part of Casper knew he should apologise; that what he’d said was out of line. But he wasn’t without his pride.

“Was I wrong?”

“I said I want you to apologise.”

Casper scowled.

“Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Peter stiffly. “… And I’m sorry, James, if that really is how we made you feel.”

At a gesture from his wife, Peter sat back down.

“You know, I really don’t care about whether you trust us,” Tsuru muttered. “Making a deal with a child molester isn’t the best way to secure yourself an out. You want a backup? Fine. I’ll give Tasha some money. I know you’re friends. Go and live with her. You know she’d die before she kicked you out.”

Casper chuckled.

“Before she lived with you, Tasha’s place was neck deep in pizza boxes. Where do you think I was staying when I went on the run?”

“The point,” Tsuru replied. “Is that there are options. Lots of options. Better options.”

“There are,” Casper conceded. “And every single one of them comes with strings attached. At least with this one, I know where all the risks are.”

At that, Tsuru snorted.

“You know the risks. He gives you gifts. What next? Are you going to tell me you can fix him?”

“Would you shut up?” Casper asked. “I told you, it’s not like that.”

“Then why the hell are you giving him a chance?” she asked. “You know he’s dangerous. You admit he’s tried to molest you-”

“Wait, what!?” James interjected, shaking Bex momentarily from her doze. Tsuru ignored him.

“-And yet you’re still set on having him in your life. Why, Casper?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply. He closed it again. They were staring at him; James on the verge of panic. He felt small.

“… He saved my life,” he said quietly. “Back when the elves attacked. I was with some guys, but we got separated. One of them cornered me.”

“It was you,” Peter murmured in a voice of sudden realisation. “You’re the boy that Theo and Kym ran into. The one who nailed the female with a flash grenade.”

“Yeah. But afterwards, she came after me. Her birds were tearing me apart. I think she was gonna make them eat me.” Casper sniffed. “And then Father stabbed her in the gut. He saved me.”

“You don’t owe him anything,” Tsuru growled. “Take it from someone who’s just as powerful as he is, saving a kid from being cornered by a monster doesn’t make you a saint. It just makes you not as bad as you would have been if you stood there and let them die. It doesn’t cost him anything, and so you owe him nothing.”

“… Well, I don’t see it that way.”

Tsuru let out a huff.

“Of course you don’t.”

For a time, the conversation ended there. Then Casper voiced the one thought that had been nagging at him for weeks.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, though?” he asked. “Cuz you look at him there, with all those other kids, and it’s so obvious he’s trying to be good. Doesn’t it hurt you at all?”

The look that Tsuru gave him then was hard.

“There are plenty of good men in the world, Casper. But most of them don’t fuck kids.”

The silence that followed that was a good deal shorter.

“How did you know where my father was?” Peter asked. “You told him exactly where to go.”

Casper snickered.

“I think I’ve told you enough secrets for today.”

When Father finally returned to the waiting room, the atmosphere was tense. Everyone besides Casper turned to look at him, the level of disgust ranging from face to face. For his part, Father simply ignored them.

“I’ve repaired everything I can,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s far from perfect. Some of the tissue was too burned to be brought back. There will be scars. And there was some damage to the spinal cord that I lack the-” he searched for the word. “-Let’s call it the dexterity to account for. He might find his legs a little stiff from now on. Other than that, he’s healing. Give him a few days to rest, and he should find his feet.”

“Thank you,” Casper said, refusing to meet anyone else’s gaze.

“What’s the price?” Tsuru asked. “What did Casper have to promise you to make you agree to this?”

Father sighed.

“There wasn’t a price, Tsuru. I couldn’t just stand there while one of Earth’s defenders lay dying. Even were that not the case, I’m not going to extort a boy just for trying to help a friend.”

Tsuru turned to Casper, waiting for a contradiction. None was offered.

“… Thank you,” she muttered. “For saving my husband’s life.”

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Interlude: Casper Sullivan

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Manhattan Island, Four Twenty Seven AM:

Of the many hospitals dotted across the eastern seaboard, there were few quite as storied, or as well regarded, as Mount Sinai. The place was huge, well equipped, and had doctors and nurses ready and waiting to handle whatever New York had to throw at them.

But Hideyoshi Toranaga had a three inch hole in his gut. It was a small miracle that he had even lasted long enough for the emergency response team to see him to the surgery.

As of this moment, Hideyoshi had been in surgery for hours. Every time a member of the medical staff came in or out of the waiting room, they looked increasingly grim.

Casper sat by his friend in the quiet, trying to piece together just what was going on. James had bags under his eyes. He wasn’t speaking. Every time he moved, his fingers seemed to shake. Casper was worried.

He hadn’t pushed; not even a little. When he’d woken up last night to the sound of Tasha flicking pebbles at his window, he hadn’t questioned it. When he’d opened up that window, only for her to scale the wall and pass a barely conscious James into his custody, he hadn’t asked. He’d simply escorted the other boy back to his room.

He was trying to be patient.

Now, however, as he sat there, listening to the emotions coursing through his friend’s mind; watching the grown ups talk quietly on their even grimmer side of the room; he found he couldn’t hold it back.

“… Hey,” he muttered, elbowing the other boy gently in the side. “We promised, remember? If we ever got into trouble bad enough we couldn’t fix…” he let the sentence hang. No need to press the point.

For a few moments, James didn’t respond. Casper could feel the shame and dread rattling around inside his skull, no doubt going in circles.

Eventually, his friend shook his head.

“No,” he mumbled, his voice a little croaky. “Every time I ask for help, it just gets someone hurt. What if I got Jiji killed?” he sniffled. “How could you help, anyway? You’re just a kid, like me.”

Casper rolled his eyes, and reached over to bonk his friend in the noggin with his knuckles.

“It’s not about whether I can help, you doof. It’s about being there when I know you need a hug.”

“I don’t need a hug,” James muttered, his cheeks going slightly red. “Anyways. If I did, I’d ask Tasha. She gives better hugs than you.”

“Oof,” Casper replied, prodding his friend gently in the ribs. “That smarts. Going for the nuts already?”

“… Maybe.”

For a moment, neither spoke.

“So, you’re really not gonna tell me anything, huh?”

A moment’s hesitation. That sense of guilt momentarily deepening in James’ mind as he shook his head. Casper sighed. 

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I figured.” He turned his gaze across the room towards where Bex sat, half asleep on Sarah’s knee, and raised his voice. “Hey, Bex. Your brother needs a hug and he’s too wimpy to let me do it. Can you come over here a sec?”

Slowly, with a gentle prod or two from her mother, the semi-conscious girl pulled herself up off of Sarah’s lap, and crossed the waiting room to her brother. James glared darkly at Casper as Bex positioned herself on his lap.

Casper didn’t care about that too much. All he cared about was that as James’ sister began dozing against his chest, the pain in his head began to dim, even if only by a little. Less than half an hour later, both James and Bex were fast asleep.

The adults were still keeping to themselves. Casper did likewise. He sat back in his uncomfortable chair, closed his eyes, and stretched his power out.

If he reached as far as he could go, he found the very edges of his field could touch the inside of the surgery room. There were minds he recognized, there; some he didn’t, too. A few frazzled staff members passing from the observation room, to the waiting room and back, all amidst a swarm of other routes, no doubt distracted by a dozen different tasks. The mind of Hideyoshi, muddled by a fog of anaesthesia. The minds of those who operated on him; all worry subsumed by an almost adamantine focus.

That last one was almost soothing.

Minutes passed this way. Maybe hours. It was hard to tell. He found himself gauging time by Peter’s habitual laps around the room.

Then, one of the staff members came out to meet the grown-ups, his mind somber. Casper kept his eyes closed, his ears pricked.

“-not going well,” the man was saying. “I think I need to talk with you in private.”

A rustling; a few snatches of conversation too quiet for him to hear, then the feeling of Sarah’s mind stepping briefly closer to him.

“Casper, are you awake?”

“Yeah,” he murmured, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Look after James and Bex, okay? We need to go and talk to the doctor.” He nodded, then felt a hand squeeze his wrist. “Thank you for being here for them. It really helps.”

He feigned a smile.

“Any time.”

As the clustered adults all stepped away, Casper let his mind follow them. Of the older members of James’ family, Sarah’s mix of worry and familial concern was the only one that played particularly true to him. For his part, Peter’s mind at least made sense; a layer of focus and intensity, sitting firmly over a roiling mass of fear. What really struck Casper out, however, was Tsuru. There was no anxiety there. Just a mournful kind of acceptance. He found it troubling, how little her mind seemed to run from the pain. How could she seem so comfortable like that, when the mere proximity of those feelings was enough to make his heart shake?

The four of them found an empty room a short way away, and Casper heard a momentary snatch of conversation, before the door clicked shut behind them.

It was aggravating, Casper thought. All of it. Trying to help when no one around would tell him anything. He opened his eyes, and swore quietly to himself.

The waiting room had a reception desk, apparently doubling as something of a dispensary. The lady working the counter gave him a sympathetic sort of look. He leaned his head back against the wall, and tried to let it go.

He failed.

“Hey,” he called to the one remaining staff member. “Is there like, a cafeteria or something? I kinda wanna get these guys some food.” He gestured at James and Bex, still snoozing gently in one another’s arms. “We’ve been here for a while.”

At that, the woman simply smiled.

“Down the hall to the left,” she murmured, leaning out past the counter and pointing out a path for him to follow. “There’s a stairwell that takes you to the third floor. You should be able to find them something there. You need me to call ahead for a coupon?”

“Yeah. Please.” He stood, his legs a little stiff. “Can you watch these guys while I’m gone?”

“Won’t take my eyes off them for a second, dear.”

“Thanks.”

He headed out into the hall, but did not go straight for the cafeteria. Instead, he walked until he was out of the lady’s sight, then took a right, heading for the room where all the adults were gathered.

Empty hallway. Good. The blinds on the door were closed. He tried listening at the door. No dice. All of them spoke too quietly.

Casper thought for a moment, then had an idea. There was a water dispenser a short way away, a plastic tube running along the side, full of plastic cups. He took a cup, then inverted it, and pressed it against the door. That carried the sound through a little better. He put his ear against it, and listened.

“— Severe damage to the liver and portions of the intestine, along with arcing burns to his kidneys, stomach, and lungs. I wish I could give you a more hopeful prognosis, but honestly, we’re struggling just to keep the man alive.”

“We already have a specialist heading in from L.A,” replied Peter’s voice, his tone mechanically calm. “What are his odds of surviving the next two hours?”

A pause.

“Not great. You asked for honesty. I’d give him fifteen percent odds of making it that long. Maybe less. Is there a chance you can make a portal?”

It was Tsuru’s voice that answered there, her own voice simply tired.

“New York’s portal maker is currently MIA,” she replied. “No available teleporters who can make the jump with passengers. I’d do it myself, but I’m spent. What about Caleb? The boy I brought in with me.”

Casper felt a momentary surprise in the doctor’s mind, then a diversion as his brain came back on track.

“Oh. One moment.”

The sound of paper being moved.

“He’s still in surgery. Luckily, none of his injuries were life threatening. We were able to bring him around long enough to free the other two you brought in, but he wasn’t exactly cogent.”

“I see.” Casper wasn’t sure he’d ever heard anything as tired as when Tsuru said those words.

A long quiet, then the doctor let out a sigh.

“Look,” he murmured. “We can keep his heart beating; artificially, if need be. We can keep his brain oxygenated. Hopefully, that will be enough for your specialist to work with, but I cannot say for sure.”

Casper stepped away from the door. He didn’t need to hear any further; the feel of the minds through the door said enough. He deposited the cup in a waste bin, and headed down the hallway towards the cafeteria. He might as well get the others some food.

He dipped a hand into his pocket as he walked, and pulled out his phone.

For a moment; For just a moment, Casper wondered if it was worth it.

Then, he remembered the agony playing around in his best friend’s brain.

He opened up the contacts list, pressed his thumb to the only name, and made the call.

Even this early in the morning, the man answered within the first few rings.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Father,” said Casper quietly. “I need to ask a favor.”


Manhattan Island, Five Thirteen AM:

Neither of the other two had roused by the time Casper returned to the waiting room, laden down with chocolate pastries and a three-pack of strawberry milk. He spent a moment weighing their probable hunger against the pressing need for sleep, and decided to let them rest.

He sat back down beside them, tore open the packaging on one of the pastries, and took a bite. Amazing; the thing had zero flavor. How did they manage to produce chocolate that didn’t have a taste?

He took another bite.

He didn’t respond when the adults shuffled their way back in, his only action being to pull one of the milk cartons out for a drink. It was no better than the pastry.

Where the adults had previously spoken quietly among themselves, now, they simply sat. He found himself wrapping his senses back in around himself, simply for the protection of his sanity.

There was a sound below. A door slamming. The padding of feet as they sprinted over stairs.

Casper took another bite of pastry.

Beside him, Bex began to rouse, either from the rapidly building sound, or the deceptively mouthwatering scent of chocolate. She rubbed a forearm against her face with a yawn, and opened a single crusty eye.

Casper picked a chunk of chocolate from his pastry, and held it up to the girl’s face. She took a sniff, opened her mouth, and allowed him to pop the chocolate inside. Then she groaned, her face crinkling in half-unconscious irritation, and began trying to burrow her head into her brother’s chest.

The sound grew louder. Tsuru turned her head to look, Peter and Sarah too focused on one another to pay it much attention.

Casper took another drag of milk.

The runner was in the hallway now. In the periphery of his vision, Casper watched as Tsuru’s face went from tired annoyance, to consternation, to aggression.

When Father finally arrived, he came without disguise. His form was the same as Casper remembered from the first time they had met. From most of their meetings, in fact. He was a man, today, not a teen.

Casper didn’t look at him beyond the first glance. He took another bite of pastry.

“Where is he?” Father asked, his breathing heavy. “Where’s Hideyoshi?”

“You shouldn’t be here, pederast,” Tsuru replied, her tone positively dripping with venom. “Leave, before I flay you of every skin you have.”

That proclamation shook both Peter and Sarah from their bubble. They looked to the newcomer, Sarah confused, Peter cold.

At that, Father simply swore.

“Don’t make this into a fight, Tsuru. You’re too tired to scrape a win.”

At that, Tsuru’s eyes flared. She opened her mouth to speak, but Peter beat her to it. He was on his feet in a blur, his fist arcing directly for Father’s face. The man simply bent out of the way, one palm rising to press against Peter’s ribs.

“You don’t get to use my mother’s name,” Peter growled. “Not now. Not ever. Do you understand me?”

Casper took another slurp of milk, glad that Bex seemed to have found her way back to sleep.

Tsuru too had found her feet by now. She had sparks dancing in her eyes.

Literally.

Green ones.

“If you value the twisted life you live,” she spat. “You will take your hand off my son.”

Father opened his mouth to respond to that, but Casper groaned.

“All of you shut up,” he muttered. “You’re gonna wake the kids.”

All at once, the entire room seemed to remember he was there.

The sparks stopped dancing in Tsuru’s eyes.

He dumped the flavorless pastry on a magazine table with a thump, before turning to look at Father.

“He’s through there,” he said, pointing to the door through which the doctors had moved. “Second doorway to the right. The surgery’s still going on.”

After a moment of hesitation, Father simply nodded.

“Thank you, Casper,” he murmured, before striding into the hall.

Tsuru did… something, to try and stop him, but whatever it was seemed to flicker off his skin.

In the silence following Father’s exit, all eyes turned themselves to Casper.

He shrugged.

“James’ grandad was gonna die,” he muttered, his tone bitter. “I called in a favor from a friend.”

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Aid: 5.9

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James:

James Toranaga was still in his pajamas. He hadn’t bothered to change. The matter at hand was too important. He soared fast and low above the moonlit city, his phone pressed up against his ear. He’d already given his grandparents Charlie’s home address.

“Tasha’s heading across town now,” Tsuru’s voice spoke from her end of the phone line, forced calm permeating every note of it. “Whatever you do, you can’t let Caleb start until she’s there to support you.”

“We don’t have time for that, Baba,” James muttered. “We need to get this done as fast as we ca-”

“James,” she cut him off, her voice hard. “There is every single chance that this is all a con. Suddenly being in a rush doesn’t change that. In fact, if I wanted to make someone abandon their plans and do whatever I said without thought, then pretending everything was falling apart is exactly what I would do. You get there, you wait, and you only let him do this once Tasha’s there to snap his fucking neck if he betrays you.”

James listened, he absorbed, and he shook his head. His grandma had a point. He wished she didn’t, but she did. He wished his heart would just stop pounding in his ears.

“… Fine.”

Tsuru gave the boy a single affirmative grunt, then hung up.

He caught sight of his school building coming into view below, and altered course. Not too far now.

It was less than half a minute before James was at the factory building. The sliding gate was open. Caleb must already be here. He shot in through the tiny opening, pivoted towards the stairs, and stopped. Something on the upper floor was glowing; a faint, ghostly green light casting the railings that lined the stairway into a misty sort of shadow. He could hear Caleb moving about up there, the older boy muttering either incantations or bundled swear words rapidly under his breath.

… Maybe it’d be better if he just stayed down here for now. Whether he was lying or not, Caleb was sure to want to set this thing in motion the moment he turned up. Maybe he should just stay out of sight till Tasha arrived. No need to start a fight. He shot another troubled glance up the stairwell, then sighed, and reluctantly drifted down towards to the floor.

The moment his feet touched the ground, the glow from the upper level flared, shifting from a neon green to an almost cobalt blue. The light grew brighter; far brighter. He sucked in a breath, and the blueish mist seeping down the stairway almost seemed to pulse.

“James?” asked Caleb’s voice from above, a little too quick in the delivery to be genuinely calm. “That you? Get up here. I’m almost done setting up.”

‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘There goes that idea.’

Out loud, he only managed a mutter.

“Not till Tasha gets here,” he said. “Sorry.”

Caleb’s reaction was less severe than James had been expecting. The older boy’s head poked out over the metal railing, shooting him a glare. James held his gaze as best he could. It would have been easier if holding off didn’t feel like such a big betrayal.

After a few seconds, Caleb swore under his breath, moving back away from James’ view.

“Fine,” he growled. “We’ll wait. Just stay down there and start pulling your power together. You can at least be ready for the damn thing when she gets here.”

James opened his mouth to respond to that, then thought better of it. Instead, he simply complied, sitting himself cross-legged on the ground, and digging into his power as best as he was able.

The next three minutes may well have been the slowest in James’ life. Caleb was done with his setup in only a dozen seconds or so, and from there, moved to sit at the top of the staircase, his legs fidgeting in place as he scowled down at the boy below, his fists clenching and unclenching harder by the second. James tried not to look at him. It set his teeth on edge. It didn’t help that he had no idea what ‘pulling his power together’ was even supposed to be.

He considered asking Caleb, but just the look on the older boy’s face told him no. Best not to push any triggers at all, in that regard. He took his best guess, and dug into his powers.

Nothing happened.

James felt Caleb’s eyes boring into him as he sat there, letting the seconds tick by.

Eventually, Caleb closed his eyes, and let out a long, slow sigh.

“You know that feeling you get when you use a spell?” he asked. “Like there’s something leaving your body?”

“… Yeah?”

“Try to do that,” Caleb muttered. “But do it without actually casting the spell, so the energy doesn’t have anywhere to go but you.”

James gave the older boy an awkward sort of nod, and tried.

It felt weird, trying to access his magic without really using it; like opening a faucet and trying to will the water to stay exactly where it was. It took a few tries, Caleb’s fidgeting growing more and more pronounced by the second, before he finally felt something change inside his form. It was like some kind of pressure; like a layer of viscous goop pressing its way out beneath his skin. The glow above them grew stronger still.

Seeing that, Caleb’s twitching slowed, just a little.

It was the sound of feet thudding hard and fast against distant pavement that alerted the two of them to Tasha’s eventual arrival. James turned his head to glance out through the open doorway, and thought he could spot her silhouette in among the distant gloom.

“Fucking finally,” Caleb muttered, pushing off of the step with his hands and rising to his feet. “James, c’mon. We need to get this thing started right now.”

For a moment, James considered holding the line. That line of thought didn’t last long. It felt like too much of a dick move, continuing to delay it all when Tasha was literally in sight. He pushed himself upright and followed Caleb up the stairs at a jog.

A part of him had wandered what could be producing such a glow. That part of him was vaguely disappointed when it turned out to be a water bottle. Not even a nice one, either; just one of those mountain springwater bottles you could get for like, a dollar fifty from any store in history. He could still see the crinkled label on the side, advertising a twist of lemon flavoring.

He made no comment when Caleb picked him up, and began carrying him across the floor towards the thing, presumably in an effort to avoid disturbing the intricate web of glyphs, feathers, and a dozen or so other assorted knick knacks that now lay strewn across the already untidy factory floor.

“… What’s the bottle for?” he asked, wobbling a little on his feet as Caleb dumped him unceremoniously on the floor beside it.

“It holds the potion,” Caleb grunted, gesturing at a space in the central glyph devoid of any larger markings. “Sit there. I’ll get us started now. Just a warning, this is probably gonna hurt like hell. The mage I learned it from said it was like a cattle prod to the kidneys.”

James merely shook his head at that as he took his seat in the centre of it all. He tried to ignore the way the patterns on the floor began to shift the moment he took his place, moving along the concrete floor like leaves on water.

“Yeah. I figured it’d suck,” he muttered, his tone grim. “Doesn’t matter right now. Just do it.”

Caleb apparently needed no further pushing. He moved back outside the still moving ring of glyphs, oddities and symbols, and gave his incantation. It wasn’t long; just a few words, really, in a language that sorta sounded like arabic. For his part, James clenched his teeth in preparation for the pain. What he got was underwhelming.

It started as an ache, at first. Small, just a barely noticeable tingling at the tips of his fingers, like putting his tongue against a battery. It spread slowly up his hands, then his arms, before it hit the point where that pressure still lingered beneath his skin. Where the two sensations mixed, it almost began to tickle. The misty light flowing all around him changed its hue again, becoming a vibrant, almost electrical kind of blue.

‘Huh. Weird.’

From the floor below, the sound of stomping feet grew louder, accompanied by a metallic rattle as something slammed against the tin of the door in passing.

James cocked his head towards the stairwell where Caleb stood, confused.

“Hey, I thought you said this stuff was gonna hurt.”

Caleb opened his mouth at that, but before he had a chance to answer, there was sound like snapping metal, and Tasha’s body collided against his chest with what looked like the force of a freight train. Whatever he had been about to say was lost as the air left his lungs in a sharp, unintended wheeze, his eyes going wide with the sudden pain.

James watched, more than a little taken aback, as she grabbed the staggering boy by the shoulder, and proceeded to simply slam him against the wall.

“James,” she said, her voice completely calm. “You better tell me you’re okay, or I will snap him like a twig.”

“… I’m fine.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb coughed long and hard as Tasha let him go, slumping forward against himself, and pressing his hands against his knees for balance. It took him a few seconds just to catch his breath.

“C-christ, Tasha,” he managed. “What the hell was that for?”

“We told you to wait till I was here, asshat,” came Tasha’s reply. “The whole point was to have me here to stop you hurting James.”

Whatever Caleb’s reply had been, it was lost on James. He found his attention drawn inward, as the glowing light that filled the room converged upon his skin, and that gentle tingle within his veins began turning itself to spikes.

The first wave was enough to simply shake him, over too soon to really register as pain so much as a spasm across his form. He squeaked.

To Caleb and Tasha’s credit, the noise halted their brewing row in its tracks. He had just enough time to register Tasha’s voice asking if he was okay, before the second spasm hit, and his body curled in upon itself like a knot pulling taut. He screwed his eyes shut, and did the best he could to restrict the noise to a low, quiet whine. This one wasn’t over quick. He counted at least five long, agonizing seconds before it ended. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sheen of sweat drops dotted along his hands, each emitting a vibrantly colored glow.

“… Is there anything we can do?” Caleb’s voice asked from somewhere nearby, sounding almost awkward.

“… Yeah,” he mumbled back, watching as the film of liquid began to move, forming a dozen thin, cobalt colored lines as they trickled across his skin towards the bottle. “Get out. Both of you. Right now.”

“… Put something in your mouth,” Caleb muttered. “Stop you biting off your tongue.”

As the third spasm hit, James could only hope they had heeded his request.


Caleb:

Neither teen spoke as they stood together at the roadside. There wasn’t anything to say. It was tense, oddly charged; the two of them torn between mutual aggression, and trying to ignore the whimpered sounds of pain still ringing out from the factory floor. Caleb made the best attempt he could not to let it bother him, simply slipping his hands into his pockets, and digging his nails into his palms. This wasn’t right. None of it was right.

“… When today’s over,” he murmured, half to Tasha, half just to cover the sounds of retching from inside. “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can.”

“I’m going to,” Tasha agreed through gritted teeth, her eyes fixed on the road. “Just trust me on that. It’s happening.”

It took far too long for those awful sounds to stop. When they finally did, Caleb turned back towards the door, and took a step towards it. He felt Tasha’s hand closing around his wrist, and turned to meet her glare with his.

“I wanna make sure he’s okay,” he said evenly. “Let me go.”

Tasha didn’t budge.

Caleb barely had to give a thought before his free hand had cloaked itself in flame. He felt Tasha’s fingers squeeze a little tighter at his wrist.

“Stop it,” muttered a small voice from the open doorway, caught between bitterness and exhaustion. Caleb turned, and saw James, looking smaller and more ruffled than he’d ever seen him before. The boy stepped across the short distance between them, his arms wrapped in tight around his form. He sniffled.

“… You okay?” Tasha asked.

The look James gave her could only be described as withering.

“Peachy.”

They both pretended not to notice the tear marks streaking down along his face.

James unfolded his arms, and pressed the water bottle into Caleb’s hands, perhaps now one fifth full of some glowing, almost pearlescent fluid.

“Go save our friends,” he muttered. “I’m going back to bed.”

With that, James pushed past them, and stumbled his way out into the street, heading for his home.

Caleb gave Tasha a look. She simply nodded, before stepping up, and hefting the boy up off the ground onto her back.

“… Don’t need your help,” he grumbled, already burying his face against her shoulder. Tasha gave the boy a hug. No further complaints were made.

“See him home. We’ll meet up later on.”

“Yeah.”

Caleb watched the other two fading away into the night, and turned his gaze to the bottle with a sigh. This had better work.

He raised the bottle to his lips, and gagged. It was, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing he’d ever tasted. He swallowed.

‘Oh,’ murmured that little voice inside his brain. ‘So that’s what being a god feels like.’

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Aid: 5.8

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Twenty Three:

Thirteen’s apartment was tiny; just a single room, really, with little more than the formality of a wall separating the toilet from the rest of the living space to justify the usage of the term. Twenty Three couldn’t bring herself to truly be upset about that. It was just one of the tiny ways her partner’s constant sass had of biting him in the rear. She contented herself that at least his punishment wasn’t something more severe.

She moved to the bed, and one by one started pulling sheets up off the mattress.

At least being smaller made the place quicker for her to search.

She examined the bedding by touch as she pulled it apart. Nothing there that wasn’t supposed to be. She checked the mattress, then dumped the sheets back down on top of it. She’d remake it when she was done, if there was time. She moved on to search the trunk.

Thirteen hadn’t been talking lately; ignoring offers of food or company and rarely even messaging her more than once every couple of days. That never bode well. When Thirteen went quiet, it always meant he was trying to keep things from her. She sighed. Thirteen only hid the things that led to fights.

The last time, it had been a kitchen knife; a small thing, embedded with a dozen or so pitifully small enchantments. He’d had some damn fool idea about just cutting the brands out of their skin. She would have laughed if the thought alone wasn’t enough to get him killed. That was years ago now, though. She’d thought he’d given up trying.

The knife had led to the biggest fight she could remember. He’d cried as he watched her break it; hadn’t spoken to her for months after that.

She wondered how long the silent treatment would last this time around.

The trunk was a bust. Nothing in there besides a few clothes and the small assortment of possessions their masters had allowed him to maintain. There was a Tardis shirt in there, a good three sizes too small for him now. It had been a task and a half just getting the thing for him. She’d thought he would have thrown it out by now. It wasn’t as if he could wear it any more.

She closed the trunk back up, then moved her search to the bathroom.

Nothing under the sink. No gaps in the walls or floor. No loose tiles under which he could be hiding things. She sighed, for a moment allowing herself to hope. Maybe there was nothing here to find. Maybe he really had given up. It felt wrong, having that be what she hoped for.

She moved to the toilet, and began pulling apart the water housing. No bags inside. Nothing there that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe he was just trying to get some space from her? Maybe he wanted her to make the first move? Maybe he was just being a moody shit. Teenagers were difficult, even at the best of times.

She returned to the main room, and started re-dressing the bed. Maybe she could just invite him over for a while; just talk things out.

She made it halfway through getting the final sheet back in place when her phone pinged.

Great, she thought drily. A new target. Just what I needed.

She pulled the phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen, and that little scrap of hope shrivel away inside her chest.

“So,” she whispered. “This is how they finally break us, huh?”

The target was a girl. A human girl; about eight or nine, if she had to guess, and she was smiling. Why did she have to be smiling? That just made it so much worse. There were words as well, collected underneath the picture, half concealed by the border of the screen.

Numbly, Asset Twenty Three scrolled down and read through the target information; then she stood there, just letting it all sink in.

They told me her name, she thought. They told me her fucking name.

She took a breath.

Just say no. Take your phone, and go to the government. Right here. Right now. Let them kill you. What does it even matter? What kind of life have you got to lose?

For a moment, she almost managed to be convinced. But then there was another voice inside her head.

They’ll kill Caleb too, you know. You being obedient is the only thing that kept him alive so far.

Twenty Three allowed herself just a few more moments to pretend she had a choice, then put the phone back in her pocket with a laugh.

It didn’t matter anyway. She was a hunting dog. She did as she was told.


Caleb:

Caleb made his way back to his cage by a casual route that night. He was in no hurry. There were no tasks that day that remained for him to do, the night air was cool, and his curfew alarms weren’t set to go off for another hour, at least. Even leaving all of that aside, however, there was something else in play.

For the first time in a long while, Caleb was in a good mood. He was in a really good mood. He had a reason to be. The plan was coming together well.

In the two days since his talk with James’ stupidly powerful family, things had been right on track. According to the updates James had given him, the escape route was well on its way to full completion, and he’d spent most of yesterday training with Tasha in preparation for subduing Twenty Three.

He rolled his neck slowly around atop his shoulders for a second at that, trying unsuccessfully to ease the few remaining aches and pains. His technical ally hadn’t even tried to pull her punches. That was okay, though. He hadn’t either. If this thing really did go off without a hitch, he might even be big enough to thank her.

He was grinning by the time his cage came into view. A thought had struck him on his walk, and it was a good one.

Twenty Three would be free this time tomorrow. Maybe she’d finally be willing to give herself a name. He’d mulled it over in his head for the last half hour or so, and while it was her choice he wouldn’t dream of taking it away from her, he thought he’d like it if she chose to go with Kaylee.

Kaylee was a kind name.

His good mood lasted all the way inside his run-down apartment block, up the stairs, and halfway down the narrow hallway that led towards his cage.

Then he saw his doorway was ajar. Someone else had been inside.

He dropped his smile, slowing his pace a fraction; alert. Someone in his cage meant one of two things. Either someone had broken in, or he had a superior up the ranks that had decided not to trust him. For the first time in his life, Caleb found himself dearly hoping he’d just been robbed. Suspicion would just make the whole plan harder.

He neared the door and, quiet as he could, reached forward to push it open. Before his hand even touched the handle, however, the door swung open from the other side. What he saw behind it was not a supervisor, and that was not a relief.

“Hey, Thirteen,” Twenty Three murmured, barely even pausing to look at him as she stepped out past him into the hallway. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“You searched my room?” he asked, his voice quiet.

She stopped walking at that, her back to him. Then, in the most exhausted voice Caleb had ever heard, she spoke.

“I don’t wanna fight about this, Caleb,” she muttered. “Not right now. Please. I’m too tired.”

Caleb felt his eyes draw wide at that. She’d never used the name before. That alone was enough to quiet whatever anger had been building in his gut; replacing it with a concern he couldn’t seem to put a cause to.

“… Are you okay?”

Twenty Three let out a short laugh at that, followed by a weary kind of sigh.

“No,” she said. “I’m not. I’m in pain, Caleb. I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” he replied without even a moment’s hesitation. “Whatever I can do.”

A pause, then; long enough that Caleb wondered if she’d even heard him. Then, her shoulders seemed to slump.

“Can you stop trying?” she asked. “For me? Just give up and let this be your life?” She turned around to give him a broken sort of smile. “It’d be easier for both of us if you did.”

Whatever thoughts had been winding their way through Caleb’s head came to a halt at that. She might as well have been asking him to die.

“… I really don’t think I can do that.”

“It’s easier than you’d think,” she replied. “And you won’t be alone for it, I promise. I just-” she halted there, regret for what came next written plain as day across her face. “It just hurts, you know? You’re the only good thing in my life, and the moments I get with you… they make it bearable. Can you stop making those moments hurt by making me betray you?”

“… You don’t have to keep betraying me.”

A laugh.

“I do if I want to keep your butt alive.”

There it was; the impasse. For a while, neither of them moved. There was nothing they could say. No compromise to be had.

“I care about you, you know?” Caleb gave the older girl a smile, and she gave him one back that made him feel cold inside.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Me too. Promise you’ll think about what I said?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

With that, Twenty Three turned away, and once more set off down the hall. Caleb did his best to brush the nausea aside.

It doesn’t matter, said a voice inside his haid. Tomorrow, we’ll be gone, and all of this’ll shift. It’s fi-

“You’ve got another escape attempt lined up, don’t you?” Twenty Three murmured behind her as she reached the stairs. When he didn’t reply, she simply sighed. “… Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyways. Just try and get rid of it before we leave, okay?”

“What?”

Twenty Three didn’t say any more, simply stepping onward out of sight. A minute or two later, his phone pinged from inside his jacket. Feeling a little numb, he pulled it out, and checked the screen.

The photograph was more perplexing to him than anything else at first, a distance shot of a young boy, apparently taken through a window. Then he saw the words sitting underneath.

‘Target Name: Charles Vance. High priority. Retrieve unharmed and move to designated site to await your relocation. Harm to target will result in your termination. Failure to deliver will result in termination. You have three hours. Locations enclosed.’

Fuck.

Caleb set off down the corridor at a sprint. He had to get to Twenty Three. He had to get to her right fucking now and stop this. He reached the stairs, and didn’t even bother to run, simply vaulting across the breadth of them and landing on the floor. The plan was gone. He had to get the two of them away and he had to do it now.

She was already long gone by the time he hit the street. It took everything he had not to simply punch something.

No time, Caleb. You can be pissed about this later. Bigger problems right now. No plan. No partner. Gotta find her before she leaves. Think quickly.

He had the phone back out of his pocket before he’d even consciously decided on a choice, dialing in a number and pressing it against his ear while the rest of his body set off down the street at a sprint.

It took James almost a minute to answer the call, the young voice coming across the line husky and slowed.

“Caleb,” James groaned. “It’s midnight. Why the heck are yo-”

“We’re doing the ritual now,” Caleb cut him off, sparing a moment for his surroundings before cutting off down a side street. The bin he had to get to was three blocks away. There wasn’t time to waste. “No time to wait for it anymore.”

“What?” James asked, surprised, his voice still just shaking itself from sleep. “No, Caleb. That’s tomorrow. We’ve gotta wait for the-”

“They’ve given us new targets,” Caleb said shortly. “But it’s not creatures. We were always hunting beasts before, but now they’re sending us after humans.”

“What?” To his credit, the tiredness seemed to have abandoned James’ voice at that. “What humans? Why’re they taking them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, taking the final turn into another darkened street and catching sight of the bin he needed. He kept speaking as he sprinted across to it, then ducked down, and tugged his ritual supplies from the packet he’d kept sticky taped underneath it. “I just know they want me to deliver some kid named Charles Vance. They’re gonna relocate me if I do, and they’re gonna kill me if I don’t. We don’t have any time to figure this out, Ja-”

“Charlie,” the other boy interrupted, his voice suddenly cold. “His name’s Charlie. They’re sending you after my friend.”

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