Hunt: 8.2

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Chapter Fifteen: By the Light of Distant Moons.

“Don’t you understand?” whispered Ceros, his voice shaking with restrained yet unnameable emotion. “It’s you, Astra. It has always been you.”

He reached forward, placing a tentative hand on Astra’s well-muscled forearm. The lord of the Silvermanes gazed back at the sorcerer; stunned, for all his wisdom, if only for a single moment.

“Ceros,” the larger man murmured, a hitch in his breath. “I-I love-“

Ceros put a finger to his lips.

“Say it not, my friend,” he whispered, aware, not for the first time, of the fire that seemed to dance beneath his skin. He had not expected denying it to hurt him so. His voice cracked. “I’m sorry. I should not have spoken. You have oaths you must uphold. Your men have faith in-”

He in turn was silenced as Astra pulled him close. Their lips-


“Cody?”

Cody Turner reflexively snapped his laptop shut as his mother poked her head through his bedroom door.

“Yeah, mom?”

“Can you man the counter for a sec? I’ve gotta run for food.”

“Sure.”

Cody pulled himself out of bed as his mother took her leave, and grabbed his apron off the chair beside his desk. He took a quick look at his clothes. Kinda messy. Meh. He didn’t care enough to change. He slung the apron on and went downstairs, casting a disinterested glance out of the window as he went.

Yup. Still raining. He wasn’t surprised. The sound of it pattering against the walls and roof had become so omnipresent in the past few weeks as to fade from awareness unless directly focused on. He was starting to miss the sun.

He stepped down into the lower level of his home and glanced through the kitchen door into the diner proper. There were only two customers inside, neither of them strangers. Sheriff Pete was sitting with an older man whose face was mostly bushy beard and eyebrows. Cody knew the man, even if his name didn’t come readily to mind. He ran the fishing goods store. It was hard to find someone you didn’t recognize in Rockford, blessed as it was with a population in the low two hundreds.

He stepped inside.

“-not sure about this, Pete,” beard-guy was saying. His head snapped across to Cody as he opened the door, staring at him a second too long, before returning his gaze to his companion, his voice lowering a fraction. “That thing out there weren’t normal. We tell the feds about it and next thing you know, I’m gettin’ dragged off by men in rubber suits.”

To his credit, Sheriff Pete managed not to roll his eyes.

“Calm down, Bill. We’re going to get this figured out. But you’ve got to tell the agent what you think you saw-”

“Fuck off,” Bill growled. “I don’t think I saw it. I saw it, staring right up at me out of the water, plain as I’m seeing you right now.”

Cody leaned against the counter, trying to pretend he wasn’t listening.

Pete sighed.

“What’s your point, Bill?” he asked. “Maybe you did see it. I don’t know. Remember last time this happened? That girl who said she saw a demon in the reserve?”

Bill nodded, his expression darkening under all the hair.

“I remember. Saw her running home by the lake. Poor kid damn near pissed herself.”

Pete nodded.

“We found psilocybin in her water bottle, Bill. Her boyfriend spiked her camping gear. That’s all it was.”

Old Bill was already shaking his head.

“Shrooms wouldn’t make me see what I saw,” he muttered. “I’ve been on those longer’n you’ve been alive and I ain’t ever-”

“Christ,” Pete groaned. “Don’t tell me that!”

Cody tried to disguise his snicker as a yawn. Old Bill glared at him.

Where did the seventies touch you, Bill?

Both men fell quiet. Cody pulled a notebook out from under the counter, found a pen, and started doodling on an empty page.

This was the town of Rockford, Oregon, where nothing happened and the people were crazy. That was just what happened when you dumped a couple hundred people in the middle of nowhere with no-one to talk to and nothing to do. People just went batshit.

Cody was pretty sure he was the sanest kid in town. He blamed the internet for that.

The rain kept on tapping away against the windows as he drew, Pete and Bill sitting in stony silence across cups of rapidly cooling coffee. Cody helped himself to a cookie.

There was something about the sound of rain that made it easy to get lost in drawing. Cody must’ve spent half an hour just standing there, leaned against the counter as he did his line-work. It was coming together pretty well; the figure of a half-clad young woman in the arms of an over muscled monster, the two of them looking like escapees from a sixties horror flick or the mural on a hippy van.

The sky began to darken, the sun slowly starting to set behind the clouds. That was when Cody saw the car.

It was a dinky little thing, mud-brown, twin headlights picking cones of muted light out of the gloom as it slid from the trees into Rockford proper.

Cody snickered as it hit a pothole.

His attention only really piqued when the vehicle turned into the diner’s parking lot, pulling to a halt in one of the inch-deep puddles of mud and water that still technically qualified as a bay. Bill and Pete were watching too, Bill trying as hard as he could to pretend he wasn’t.

The first to exit the car was a tall man, mid thirties, wearing the kind of cheap suit and serious expression that a decade and a half of media had more or less coded the idea of ‘FBI’ into Cody’s brain. The second figure was a kid; androgynous, to this distance, sloshing through the ankle deep water with far less swagger than the man, their build concealed by a hoodie that soon hung heavy in the rain.

They arrived at the door, the older man holding it open while the kid stepped in past him. It was a boy, Cody saw. A cute one, too, faintly Asian facial features framed by curls of waterlogged black hair.

The boy stepped inside, saw Cody, and made a beeline for the counter while his companion moved behind him toward Sheriff Pete and Bill.

“Hey there, what can I-” Cody began.

“Do you have hot chocolate?” the boy interrupted. “Please. I need it.”

They were out of hot chocolate. The only stuff they had left was for the house, not the diner.

Cody looked the bedraggled boy up and down. He looked miserable.

But that was his hot chocolate.

“I’m afraid we-” he stopped as the cute boy brushed his bangs out of his eyes with a hand. “-don’t have any marshmallows,” he adjusted lamely. “… Is that okay?”

The boy smiled. “I’ll make it work. Thanks.”

Fricken’ hormones.

“I’ll be right back.”

By far the lamest thing about life in Rockford, thought Cody as he stepped through the door between the diner and the house, was the stunning lack of eligible boys.

In the entire town, there were eleven other kids within a few years of him in age. None of them were gay. Not even the cute ones.

No, he realized as he found the stove and started boiling up some water. Especially not the cute ones.

He’d have settled for bi. He’d have been over the goddamn moon. Just for a single other person to make out with. Just a little.

Cody hated being fourteen.

He opened up the cupboard, and found the hot chocolate box. It was the good stuff. The stuff that came in cartons of ten individual sachets. Just add water for the perfect, soul warming cup of cocoa. He opened the box.

There was a single sachet left.

Fuck.

He tore it open, poured it into a mug, and then went looking for marshmallows. Might as well go all in.

Bet he’s not even gay.

He returned to the diner to find the three adults now engaged in a muttered conversation of presumably great importance. Cody wondered if Bill had gotten to which drugs he was on yet. Pretty Boy himself was seated some way to the side, wedged into a window-booth that allowed a rain-splattered view of the surrounding town. All four streets of it.

Cody carried his cup of warm, marshmallow scented goodness over to the table, and reluctantly proffered it to the boy.

Pretty Boy took it, glanced down at the top of the mug, and gave Cody a smile.

“You found marshmallows.”

Cody grinned in spite of himself.

“Yeah. Just mini ones, but it’ll work, right?”

“Dude, what are you saying? Mini ones are better.” Pretty Boy lifted the mug to his face, gave the surface a few puffs, then took a sip. “Ohhh yeah, that’s better.” He glanced back up at Cody. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” Cody answered automatically. “On the house. Sorry it took so long. We uh. We didn’t have any real hot chocolate left so I had to go in back and-” he realized he was overexplaining and stopped himself. “…I’m Cody.”

Pretty Boy smiled again.

“James.”

Cute name.

James went back to gazing at the phone beside his cocoa cup. Cody hovered awkwardly.

“… Need something?” James asked.

“No, no. Just… Mind if I sit with you?” Cody hoped his cheeks weren’t red. He gestured out the window. “It’s a small town. Not a lot of folks to talk to.”

The boy shrugged, then budged up a little way to the side. “Sure.”

Cody sat. Neither boy spoke.

The silence stretched just long enough to make Cody desperate.

“…So,” he muttered. “You know that thing, where you wanna talk, but it’s a total stranger and you have no idea what you’re supposed to say?”

James laughed. Then, without missing a beat, said:

“I like pop music. Top forties. Stuff with vocals you can sing along to. You?”

Wow. Kid was good at this.

“I like rock,” Cody said. “Songs from the seventies and eighties mostly. Kinda hard to get into new stuff when no one around you knows anything newer than The Killers.”

James grinned.

“No K-pop, then?”

“What’s K-pop?”

That had apparently been the wrong thing for him to say.

So passed the next hour or so of Cody’s life, huddled up in the warm with a cute boy at his side, watching a stream of music vids via James’ apparently indefatigable internet connection. Interrupted only briefly when Cody’s mother returned to man the counter. Occasionally, they sang along together in an undertone. The cutie had an awesome voice. Eventually, though, the grown ups’ meeting drew to a close. James’ agent-ey companion stood from his seat.

“Thank you, Mr. Bourn, Sheriff Milne. I think I have everything I need. Please don’t hesitate to contact me again if you remember any further details. James,” he called over his shoulder. “Grab your stuff, bud. We’re heading out.”

James shut his phone off mid-song, flicking it into his pocket and pulling himself to his feet.

Cody pulled himself upright to let him out, his heart sinking a little.

“Bye, James,” he said. “It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah,” James grinned back. “It was cool. See you tomorrow, yeah?”

Cody’s brain stalled out for a second.

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah. We’re staying in town for a couple weeks while the big guy figures out some stuff. You guys are open all day, right?”

Cody tried not to grin too hard.

“Yeah. Yeah, we are. Later, man.”

Cody watched the other boy and his perplexing agent friend depart, a kind of warm thrill running down his spine. He started slightly when his mother’s voice spoke up behind him.

“Cute kid,” she murmured. “He gay?”

“To be confirmed,” he answered. “Call it sixty percent.”

Previous Chapter:

Hunt: 8.1

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Casper:

Casper Sullivan set the guitar on his lap and strummed a chord.

He winced. It was badly out of tune. No surprise, really. He hadn’t played it in, what? Eight months? Nine? He twisted a few of the keys, strummed again, twisted some more.

Better.

He started playing, plucking the bass-line to an old favorite from memory, trying not to think.

It felt weird being back in his old house; off-axis, sitting on a bed he hadn’t touched in almost a year, trying to ignore the thin coating of dust that lay over everything he owned. Used to own.

Why did none of it feel like his?

He kept playing. He’d been good at the guitar. Still was, apparently.

It didn’t take up much of his attention.

He cast a glance back toward the cardboard box beside the door, then once more looked about the room.

What was he supposed to want from here? The bookshelf full of stories he had half-memorized?  The trading cards he’d long-since replaced? The action figures once played with by a younger, happier kid?

None of it meant anything to him anymore.

He wasn’t even mad. It just felt weird.

He stopped the song midway, and let himself fall back against the bed, gazing at the ceiling.

‘Oh yeah. I remember putting up those stickers. Mom got so mad.’

He felt his lips crawling toward a smile, and put a stop to it. She wasn’t worth a smile.

The divorce had been finalized that morning. Splitting everything down the middle. It turned out that meant selling off the house.

It was kinda fitting that this would never be his room again.

Leave it to the kid who used to hide his bruises.

He snickered at himself.

‘I should learn to play some emo rock.’

The door creaked open an inch or so.

“Need something?” he asked.

“Just checking in,” Sarah murmured from outside. “I heard the guitar. You’re pretty good with that thing.”

He smiled.

“Thanks.”

A brief pause, then:

“Your dad’s here.”

Casper closed his eyes.

“I thought he was coming later on.”

“He was.” She hesitated for a moment. “He says he has something for you.”

He sighed.

“Great. Even more crap I don’t want.”

Sarah didn’t chide him for the jab. He was glad of that. She understood, on a level. She opened the door a little further, gazing at him through the crack.

“Want me to make him leave?”

“It’s fine.”

“Got everything you want to take?”

“Just this,” he gestured to the guitar. “Everything else feels weird-” he stopped himself as a thought occurred. “Hang on.”

He pushed himself off the bed, then crawled underneath it.

He could feel Sarah watching him from the doorway while he searched, but she said nothing. A minute or so later, he clambered back out, a moth eaten stuffy clutched in one hand.

It was an old thing, slightly tattered; one of its button eyes torn out whoever knew how long ago.

“Think Bex’d mind looking after Mr. Bearford?” he asked, his cheeks a little red. “I owe him a better home.”

A smile.

“She’s Bex. She won’t say no.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. She’s cool like that.” He proffered the stuffy, and Sarah took it. Then, he hefted his guitar and slung it awkwardly against his back.

“Want me to stay up here?” Sarah asked as he stepped past her. “I’m here if you need it.”

“It’s fine,” he murmured. “It’s just dad.”

In spite of the words, he found himself hesitating at the top of the stairs.

It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t anger, either. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to feel anything at all for the old man lately. Just a dull, depressive kind of ache. Every time they spoke, he came away tired.

He took a deep breath, and stepped on down the staircase. Ray was standing by the door with a plastic wrapped box under one arm.

There was something strange about seeing his dad here now; his broad frame a size too large for the confines of the hallway. Once, he’d been imposing. Now, he just seemed big.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hi, Casper.”

“Finally split up with Mom, huh?”

“Guess so.”

Casper opened his mouth to say something snide, but the words didn’t come. He didn’t know what to say.

“Feels weird being back, you know?” he murmured instead, gesturing at the house around them. “I don’t think I like the kid who used to live here.”

His father smiled. “I liked him.”

“You had a funny way of showing it,” came the reply before Casper could think to stop it. He winced. So did Ray. He hadn’t meant it as a jab.

Ray started to apologize. Casper cut him off.

“Why are you here, dad?” he asked. “I didn’t want to see you yet.”

Another apology. Casper didn’t acknowledge it. A moment’s quiet, then his father proffered the box from under his arm.

“Wanted to give you this,” Ray said. “And to say sorry. I feel like I’m doing that a lot today.”

“What for this time?” Casper asked, one eyebrow raised, not approaching to take the box.

The man shrugged.

“You said there’d be no point to coming home if there wasn’t a home to come back to. Then I went and broke it.”

In spite of himself, Casper snickered.

“Splitting up with Mom doesn’t make it broken. Hell, it might be part of how we fix it.”

His father frowned at that, the arm with the box lowering back down. A slight shake of the head.

“Why do you hate her so much?”

Casper leaned against the wall, arms folded, careful not to bump his guitar.

“You still care?” he asked.

“Of course I care,” Ray replied, almost offended. “She’s my wife.” A touch of regret, then he corrected. “Was my wife.”

More uncomfortable quiet.

“She wasn’t the one who hurt you, Casper. I was. Why won’t you let her see you?”

Casper gazed at the ground, his fingers tapping against his arms. It made him angry.

“I’m not that petty, Dad,” he answered eventually. “I get why you hurt me. I get why she wanted you to do it. There’s a big world out there, and if I didn’t have my powers, it’d probably already have stamped me flat. I get why you did it. I might even be able to forgive you for it one day.” He looked up to meet his father’s gaze. “But she lied.”

“But I lied-” Ray began. Casper cut him off.

“It’s not the same,” he said flatly. “You lied by acting like a psycho. Made me think you just went crazy on your family. I thought you were bipolar or something, I dunno. But Mom let me think she was on my side. I hate that.”

Ray didn’t answer that. He spent a dozen or so seconds just gazing at his son, then huffed a breath, and set the box down carefully on the hall table.

“I’ll get out of your hair,” he said tiredly. “Thanks for hearing me out.”

Casper rolled his eyes. “If there’s something you wanna say, say it.”

“Nope,” Ray replied, a small smile on his lips. “I know that look in your eye. Anything I said right now would just sound like I’m defending her. That’s not a trap I’m stepping in today.”

Casper snorted. 

“Would you be defending her, though?” he asked.

“Course I would,” Ray answered. “I owe her that much.” He gave his son another smile, then turned towards the door, tapping the box on the way out. “Enjoy your present. I’m sorry I couldn’t bribe you with it like I promised.”

Casper had just enough time to raise an eyebrow at that, before his father was gone. He approached the box and lifted a corner of the plastic.

Huh.

It was a playstation.

He wrapped it back up again.

Now he felt bad. Great.

“You doing okay?” asked Sarah from the stairs.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He shook his head, and heaved a sigh. “Think James is doing okay?”


James:

James was reading romance stories with his headphones on when the car finally crossed the storm front. With the music playing and his eyes on the phone screen, he struggled to spot the difference. Then, his travel companion prodded him in the shoulder, and his soothing lo-fi was disrupted by one of his headphones being pulled to the side.

“Look alive, Kid. We’ve hit the hot spot.”

James scowled. He still hadn’t forgiven agent Finch for the basketball thing. But, he peeled his eyes from the screen all the same. He looked out the window. Sure enough, it was raining outside. According to the data he’d been given, it had been doing nothing else here for almost a month; a thirty-mile bubble of stormclouds that refused to move or let up with the constant downpour; all centred on some outpost town in Oregon.

It was the perfect test-run for him. A mid-scale magical event, big enough to cause some harm if no-one intervened, but small and isolated enough that it probably wouldn’t make the news if he screwed it up. What was one more crazy cabin guy who said he saw a teenager do magic? Not that it mattered. James didn’t plan on being sloppy.

He gazed out at the deluge, watching how the drops spattered in the vast puddles they’d formed among the treeline. He’d never realized a forest could have a flood.

“You said they had a witness after we set off,” he said. “Any chance I’ll get to talk to him?”

Finch shrugged.

“Not directly,” he replied. “You’ll be in the observation room while I talk to him. You can ask your questions through me, if I think they’re appropriate. There’s no way we can spin a kid working for the feds.”

James nodded at that. It seemed fair enough. He went back to staring out the window.

For ten minutes, neither spoke. He reached up to tug his headphones back into place.

“Wait up,” Finch murmured. “Before you go back to your yaoi fanfic or whatever, I want to know what you plan to do when we get there.”

“… It’s not yaoi,” James muttered, his face reddening.

“Don’t lie to me.” Finch chuckled. “I’ve been looking at the chapter titles.”

‘I hate you so much.’

Cheeks burning, James leaned towards the glove compartment, and fumbled for the fold-out map.

“Okay, fine,” he huffed. “So, my first thing is I want to deal with the lake.” He pointed at the blue blob circling around the town’s north-eastern perimeter. “If it takes on much more water, half the town’s gonna flood. So I figure if I go to the far side, back where it joins up with the nature reserve, I can dig a trench and start diverting the water into this river over here.” He trailed his finger along the map in demonstration. 

Finch grunted, quietly impressed.

“Smart move. What made you think of it?”

“Minecraft.” James shrugged. “After that, I wanna talk to this witness guy before I put a plan down.”

Finch inclined his head. 

“Okay. We can go with that.”

James nodded. Then, after a brief wait in case Finch planned to interrupt again, he went back to his story. He’d been up to chapter three.


Chapter Three: The Hawk and the Silvermane.

Ceros Firewind had known of the Silvermanes for most of his life. They were difficult to avoid, growing up in the outskirts of Mymaeria. They were the protectors of the wall, and among the gallant few who dared ride through the unfound lands. For Ceros, however, it was different. Their young lord, Astra of the platinum hand, had once been his closest friend.

Ceros had not seen him since they were boys, and in that one moment, it was clear just how time had changed him. 

The piercing blue of Astra’s eyes never used to hold such pain-

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Interlude arc: Hunt

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Special Response Team Lead; Nicholas Finch:

The single hardest task during an emergency was going to sleep. It was almost impossible. You walked out of the briefing with fire pumping through your veins. Enemies on the front. Civilians in trouble. Evacuations needed. And yet, two times out of three, your orders were to sleep. To be on call.

It made sense, in an abstract manner. If the response teams deployed everyone at once, there’d be no one well rested enough to take charge of the situation beyond the first twelve hours or so. Even combat forces needed sleep to be at their best.

Even so, Finch hated it. He’d been told to sleep when the elves attacked last year; only brought onto active work for the latter half of the event. Forcing the male to go to ground in central park. Helping the goblin teams dispose of the hunting birds in the aftermath.

He remembered every second of that supposed nap, eyes glued to his computer monitor, watching the updates come in. One confirmed kidnapping. Two. Three.

When the number hit five, he’d crushed his coffee cup.

There were some moments when agent Finch truly hated his job. This new assignment was one of them.


“A thirteen year old?” he asked, gazing at the image on his desk. “You want my team to take down a thirteen year old?”

The woman from the planning department shrugged.

“God no,” she replied. “Activating you against him would be a disaster. But we’re the government. We’re the ones who have to have a plan in place if everything goes to shit. And that’s what we want you to do. Figure out how to stop him if everything goes wrong.”

“He’s thirteen,” Finch replied, halfway between perplexed and insulted. “My team was trained for an inter-dimensional terror response, and you want us to come up with a kill plan for an adolescent civilian?

The woman frowned.

“Did you see his surname?”

He glanced at the file again, and swore.

“His dad’s my fucking boss.”

“We know,” came the response. “That’s part of why you’re being called in. Normally, we’d rely on one of the Toranagas for this. But clearly, they’re not the right people for the job.”

Nick let out an aggrieved sigh, a residual note of stubbornness telling him to keep on fighting, even if he knew he had to do it.

“What makes you think he’s even a threat?”

His opposite number shrugged.

“We don’t,” she replied. “We have every reason to hope that he will never become a problem. But we’ve identified some side factors that pose additional risk.” Nick glanced up at her, and she started listing off items on her fingers. “First, he was molested about a year ago. It was quite traumatic, if the latter reports are to be believed. He was also actively targeted during the elvish raid-” Nick felt a momentary pang of guilt at that. “- and has been the target of at least one other attempted kidnapping that we know of.”

He began to object, but the woman wasn’t done.

“We also have evidence that he made unshielded contact with Father on at least two, possibly three occasions.”

Finch fell silent at that, his objections dying in his throat. He might have kept on fighting if the list was simply trauma. That was what the therapists were for. But this was Father. He glanced at the image on his desk, and winced.

Short. Slender. Androgynous. The kid was exactly Father’s type.

“What level of contact?” he asked.

The woman laughed. Nick didn’t really see the joke.

“A few minutes of exposure at Mount Sinai hospital,” she murmured, digging out her phone and flicking at the screen. “The contact was minimal, and he had enough protective supervision to ensure his safety. The incident we know less about is this one. One of the Toranagas’ students uploaded it last week.”

She passed the phone across Finch’s desk, and he took it.

It was set to a youtube video, only thirty seconds long. He pressed play.

A few seconds of top down footage on an empty stretch of wall. Then a muffled thump, before the wall exploded outwards with a crash. The camera panned away from the wall for a moment, just long enough to catch the freshly made hole in the building opposite. A brief glimpse of the legs of whoever was holding the camera as they dropped the three or four storeys to ground level. A few seconds of incomprehensible shaking as the person crossed the gap, then the camera steadied, now focused on a bedraggled looking man, embedded in the side of a rusted heavy goods vehicle, blood trickling slowly from his temple.

Finch paused the video, and looked closer.

“… And we’re sure that’s Father?” he asked. “Man’s a shapeshifter after all. He could’ve-”

“The form’s consistent with what Father has looked like for the last few years,” came the response. “And there aren’t many other people in New York who could’ve survived the blast.”

He nodded, then resumed the feed.

A single arm reached out from behind the camera, took Father by the shoulder, then wrenched his body free of the broken chassis, his shields flaring faintly all the while. There was something very satisfying about seeing the bastard half-concussed.

A few more seconds of shakycam, then the feed settled on the hole in the factory wall, this time viewed from ground level.

At first, Nick struggled to make out the interior in the gloom; then James Toranaga floated forward, tourmaline mist rising from his eyes.

The sound quality was terrible. Finch couldn’t make out the first few words.

“-ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

Finch fought down a grin.

“I like this kid.”

“Noted,” his opposite number replied with a smirk. “But the fact remains. He has had at least one meeting with Father in which there were no witnesses, and for which he had no protection. That, on its own, is enough to consider him compromised.”

Finch nodded.

“Can’t say I disagree,” he admitted, passing back the phone. “What are the parameters?”

“Complicated,” came the reply. “This boy attends school with some of the most important magical children in the country, and has the rough destructive potential of an M1 Abrams tank. You are advised to consider this a mission of national security. Your team is to figure out how to incapacitate him-” she raised a finger up between them. “-without pissing off his entire family.”

Nick gave her a slow nod.

“Okay,” he murmured. “What’s my cover?”


James:

“But I don’t need a supervisor,” James complained, floating out of the elevator behind his father, and proceeding down a narrow hallway. “I’ve been training super hard!”

“It’s your first hunt,” Peter replied sternly. “Your mother would kill me if I let you go out there alone.” The next words held a trace of mirth: “You need an adult there to help look after you.”

James glowered.

“Like hell I do.”

“Language,” his dad rebuked.

“… Sorry.”

“Good.” They were silent for a minute or so then, before James felt a bracing hand on his shoulder. “Cheer up, squirt. You’ll like him, I promise. Finch is cool. He’s in spec-ops.”

In the past nine months, James Toranaga had had more than enough time to get used to the idea of his father being a secret government agent. And his grandparents. And most of his friends’ parents.

“So?” he asked, determined to remain annoyed. “That doesn’t make him cool. Just makes him one of your dorky work friends.”

Peter laughed at that.

“Ouch,” he murmured, feigning a wince. “Kitty has claws today.”

“I’m not a kitty,” James grumbled, stung. “I’m a fighter. I’m tough.”

“Really?” Peter asked. “Good. Then you can stop being such a grump and come say hi to your new supervisor.”

James spent a few moments searching for a way out of his dad’s trap, and failed to locate one. That was sneaky.

“…Fine,” he muttered.

Peter cocked an ear.

“Didn’t catch that. Sorry.”

James refused to grin.

“Fiiiiiiine,” he groaned.

“Good,” Peter murmured, reaching the end of the long corridor, and pushing a bar to open the heavy door. “We’re here.”

James flitted in over his father’s shoulder.

It was a gym. Or a warehouse. Or both. The place had to be six hundred feet from end to end, high ceilinged and half filled with exercise equipment, a dozen or so people working their way between machines.

James spotted a pool to the far side. And a basketball court. And a large, thickly matted area with a number of deep looking gouges in the walls. James floated over to a machine with a set of weights fitted to each of the hand bars. He counted the weight. Half a tonne.

“… Huh.”

Peter tapped him on the shoulder.

“He said he’d be over in the basketball court,” he said. “Come on. Don’t wanna keep him waiting.”

“Right.”

James couldn’t help but drift ahead while his father navigated the equipment on the floor. One of the weird things about moving around by air. It took far less time to get to a place.

He arrived a minute or so before the older man, therefore, and found the court surprisingly well populated. Four people, two to a side, currently battling it out towards the furthest hoop.

One of them, a fit man in what looked to be his early thirties, noticed his approach and turned to wave, allowing a lithe woman to dodge past him and dunk the ball.

“Hey!” he called. “You must be James. Come on down.”

The moment the man spoke, the game stopped, the other three turning as one to gaze at the boy above them. James floated forwards, raising a hand in automatic greeting.

“Hi. Agent Finch, right?”

“Yup,” the man replied with a grin. “Drop the ‘agent’, though, yeah? Just call me Finch.”

“Sure.” James touched down and shot a glance behind the agent. “And these guys?” he asked, gesturing to the other three. The lithe woman waved.

“Oh, right,” Finch replied. “Introducing special agents Mulaney-” he gestured to the lithe woman. “Conroy-” a tall man who looked like he did pushups in his sleep. “-And Sye.” He gestured to the least muscular member of the group, a slim figure whose gender James failed to immediately place. He noted the lightness of their stance, the skin just a touch too airbrushed to be normal, and, more tellingly, the single throwing knife strapped to the upper thigh.

‘Ah,’ he realized. ‘Goblin.’

“He or she?” he asked, gesturing across at Sye. “I know most of you guys use ‘he’, but-”

“I go with ‘she’,” the goblin answered. “Thanks for asking. Most people just get it wrong.”

James smiled back, not sure what else to say.

A second of awkward quiet, then Finch spoke up.

“So. You play basketball?”

“Used to,” James shrugged. “Stopped when I got my powers. Hard to play without my friends seeing how weak I am now.” He felt a pang of regret at that. He missed sports.

“Wanna play a game?”

James cast a dubious glance towards one of the hoops. It wasn’t even close to kid height.

“I don’t think I can shoot that high.”

“Then fly,” Finch shrugged. “We’re supposed to be seeing what you can do here anyway.”

“… You sure?”

“Yep.”

The lithe woman picked up the ball, then tossed it across to James. He looked down at it.

“Uh. Ok. Sure.”

He took to the court, Finch taking up a position opposite him as the other three moved off toward the sidelines.

“You’re sure I’m allowed to fly?” he asked. It felt like cheating.

Finch grinned.

“Absolutely.”

James reluctantly took to the air.

“Ready?” Finch asked. “We start in three, two-”

The agent vanished into thin air with a quiet pop.

‘Oh, crap, not this again.’

He darted to one side in the air, hoping to clear the space before-

“-One!”

Finch reappeared around half a foot to James’ side. He felt a hand slap the basketball from his grip as the man began to fall.

“Wha-Hey!” he yelped. “No fair!”

Finch ignored him, already sprinting across the court. James was quicker. He shot in to block it, his arms spreading wide in front of the hoop just as Finch leaped-

Only for the man to shove him to the side and dunk the ball.

Finch hit the ground, looked up at James, and grinned.

“Get dunked on, kid.”

James blinked. So this was what outrage felt like.

“Wanna go again?” Finch asked. “See if you can touch the ball before I score again?”

‘… So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?’

James forced himself to take a breath before he spoke.

“Make a forcefield,” he muttered. “I don’t wanna break you.”

Finch snickered.

“Someone’s cocky. Alrighty, forcefield on-” a web of light flickered into place above his skin as he returned to his side of the court, the ball held lightly under his arm. “Ready to go on three, tw-”


Peter:

Peter Toranaga caught up with his son just in time to see Agent Finch’s body slam into the gymnasium wall hard enough to crack the plaster. He watched as his son floated over, took the basketball off of his supervisor, and grumpily dumped it through the hoop.

He decided not to ask.

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Author’s Note:

Wow. Two months off and howdy gee do I feel rusty.

Also, yes. I took two months off. I really needed it. Thank you for being patient with me.

Book One Epilogue: Elementals.

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Hideyoshi:

The house was nearly empty when Hideyoshi saw his grandson home. There were no words spoken. James hadn’t talked since their return to this dimension. Hideyoshi found a pain in his stomach every time he looked at the boy. Three hours since watching Charlie flee, and still, he shook like a leaf.

Upon being allowed inside, James made a b-line for his room, and shut the door quietly behind him, not even stopping to give his mother a hug on passing the TV room.

Hideyoshi did his best to pretend he couldn’t hear the sobs.

For his part, the evening held another heavy task. He returned to the TV room, grasped one of the loose-backed chairs that accompanied the couch, and hobbled across the floor with it until it sat opposite his daughter in law. Then, he set his walking cane down.

He sat. Neither of them spoke.

Sarah looked about as drained as Hideyoshi felt. He sighed.

“… It was the most terrifying moment of my life,” he murmured, putting his hands together and resting his chin on his knuckles. “The first time my son got himself in over his head. I think it honestly made my heart stop beating.”

It took a moment for Sarah to respond to that, still just gazing into the distance, barely aware.

“I’m still waiting for it to start again,” she said eventually, her tone surprisingly calm. “…How’d you handle it?”

Hideyoshi chuckled.

“Poorly,” he admitted. “Roped Peter into five hours combat training a day. Planted a tracking spell on his wallet. Usual parenting.” He reached into his coat pocket and retrieved his cigarettes. “I’d ask if I’m allowed to smoke in here, but I’d have to ignore you if you said no.” He flicked the pack open, and pulled one out.

“I could use one of those, if you have a spare,” Sarah murmured.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know you smoked.”

She shrugged.

“Stopped when I met Peter. Didn’t want my breath smelling like pot-ash.”

Hideyoshi grunted, then tossed her the cigarette, and pulled another for himself. A flick of his finger, and the tips of both lit up.

He brought it to his lips, held the smoke in his lungs for a moment, then let it out in a slow exhalation.

“So,” he murmured. “I came here as a newborn.” Sarah glanced across at him, mid-drag, one eyebrow raised in tired curiosity. He shrugged. “The story I was told was that the lord of my household met a stranded forge-spirit in the woods, and in exchange for the aid needed to return it home, was given the spirit’s newborn child as a prize.”

He took another drag, the statement hanging in the air between them for a moment. Sarah’s gaze returned to the wall.

He sniffed.

“I can never know for sure if that’s true, of course. They could have told me any story to keep me happy while I grew, but it’s the truth I choose to believe.”

Sarah grunted. Hideyoshi huffed. Neither spoke again until the cigarettes were done. He supplied them each a fresh one. Lit. Inhaled. Exhaled.

“… So what’s your story then?” he asked. “How’d you get here?”

For what it was worth, Sarah didn’t bother feigning ignorance. Perhaps she was just too tired. She took another pull, her fingers slightly shaky, then let out a sigh.

“I was born here,” she muttered. He raised an eyebrow, but she continued. “My parents weren’t. Of course they weren’t. I think they were hunters or itinerants or some other damned important thing. They always left the room to talk about it. All I really know is we moved around a lot. Spent most of my time alone, eating mac-n-cheese in crappy old motels for weeks at a time. Then, they’d come back all bloodied and we’d be off to find the next motel.” She shrugged. “That was life for a while.”

Hideyoshi nodded.

“There weren’t any others like you?”

Sarah shook her head. “Of course there were. My parents didn’t live here. My parents didn’t come from here. I went home with them once or twice. It never lasted long.”

“Why not?”

Another shrug.

“Because I couldn’t survive there,” she replied. “Born on Earth, after all. My powers were blocked off by all that Elvish spellcraft shit.” She let out a dry laugh. “I was the only child who couldn’t fly in a village built without the concept of restrictive gravity. The door to my house was a good two hundred feet above the ground.”

“So they took you with them?” Hideyoshi asked. “Left you half abandoned while they went to fight with monsters? Why?”

Sarah snorted.

“I don’t think they had any other idea of what to do with me.” She finished off her smoke and gestured to her companion for another. “But, the trips got longer and longer, and I got bigger, and louder, and one day, there was a knock on the door from someone at social services.” She caught the new cigarette, waited for it to light, and took a puff. “I was about six, as far as the examiners could tell. It wasn’t like I spoke coherent English.”

“What did you speak?”

She shrugged.

“As far as I can tell, a mix of my people’s language and whatever I’d managed to pick up off TV.” she chuckled. “I used to watch a lot of Jerry Springer.”

Another long quiet.

“So. What are you?”

She laughed.

“I figured you’d be able to answer that one day. So much for that, I guess.” She took another puff, then raised an arm to her face, rubbing at her cheek with the base of her palm. “How’d you find out? I haven’t told anyone about it in decades.”

Hideyoshi gazed at the wall to Sarah’s left for a time, thinking on the strangeness of his life, then gave his answer.

“It’s James,” he admitted. “He’s powerful. Too powerful. Stronger than his dad. Stronger than his grandmother. That shouldn’t be possible with a baseline human for a mother.”

Sarah nodded.

“Is he stronger than you?”

He shrugged.

“I couldn’t tell you. I hope so.” For a moment, the two of them shared a smile. Then, Hideyoshi sighed. “That boy is a loss to the gene pool.”

“What?”

Another shrug.

“He’s gay,” he muttered. “Line ends with him, unless his sister has something to say about it.”

Of all the responses, Sarah simply chuckled there.

“Called it.”

Hideyoshi snickered.

Sarah stared at the glowing bud of her smoke for a bit, then sniffed.

“Foster care was good to me,” she said. “It feels so rare that you get to hear those words, but it was. You’ve met my family. You know how kind they are.”

“Good people,” Hideyoshi agreed.

Sarah smiled, still gazing at her hands, the cigarette threaded between her fingers.

“They were so patient with me. Taught me English. Taught me maths. Homeschooled, right up till I was ten, just so I could get into classes without having to miss a beat. And every time I told them about what it was like before, they’d just smile and nod, and tell me I should write a story.” She shook her head. “Talked to a therapist about it once or twice. Gave me some bullshit about invented memory. I almost believed it.”

“Does Peter know?”

Sarah shrugged.

“Most of it. He knows my parents had powers, knows I got put in foster care. Never told him where I was from. Didn’t seem important anymore.”

“How so?”

“Hard to say,” Sarah admitted, taking another drag as she thought it over. “I used to think it was everything. Spent my whole childhood thinking about where I was from. Wanted to find it. Wanted to walk up to my parents and rip them both a new one. I had a whole speech prepared. Spent ages learning about redwood reserves and old forests. Looking for a place with trees tall enough,” she shrugged. “Couldn’t find it, obviously. Not like it was anywhere on Earth.”

She paused for a moment, waiting for Hideyoshi to pass comment. He did not, so she continued.

“I stopped trying after a while. It was making my newer, better parents worry about me. So I put it on hold. Waited until highschool was done. Saved some money, took a gap year.”

“That’s when you met Peter.” Hideyoshi nodded.

“That’s when I found Peter,” she corrected. “I told my folks I wanted to explore. But really, I was looking. I’d given up on finding where I came from. Now, I wanted to know about magic. I wanted to know why they could fly, if I couldn’t.” She snickered. “Magic’s a badly kept secret. We both know that. I started just doing internet searches. Forums. Message boards. Whole bunch of stuff. Looking for people who said they’d seen things, or survived encounters or whatever. Went out to meet them, if I could.”

She caught the look he was giving her at that, and shrugged. “I had pepper spray. Most of it was nothing. People telling each other stories or old guys looking for Bigfoot. But a couple names kept turning up. People saying they got rescued, talking about conspiracies and area 51: Toranaga.”

She chuckled.

“When I finally tracked Peter down, I thought he was part of M-K-Ultra.”

Hideyoshi remembered that. His son had been staying at a youth hostel on a solo hunt.

“What did you say?”

Sarah shrugged.

“We were young. I got him drunk. I wanted to learn about my magic. He wanted to bone. We compromised.”

Hideyoshi snorted in spite of himself.

“Christ,” he murmured, raising a hand to his forehead. “I taught the kid so much better than that.”

“No you didn’t,” Sarah smiled. “I was a pretty girl, and he was happy to show off. I knew everything I wanted in the first week or two. Told me he was a hunter. Told me what he could do.”

She took a drag of her dying cigarette, then continued.

“And he told me about his parents. That’s when I figured out I had to let it go.”

“Oh?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.

“It was the same story,” she said. “His parents were mages. They loved the work. They ran their kid through hell and back because hunting had to come first.” She looked him in the eye, then, her expression cold. “Magic damages people, Hideyoshi. Always has. I decided I’d have no part of it. I’d rather be a good person than figure out how to fly.”

Hideyoshi sighed. She thought he was a bad person. He wished he could be offended.

“Peter’s good,” he said eventually. “Tsuru and myself, I’ll grant you. But my son’s a good man.”

Sarah inclined her head.

“Call him an edge case. You didn’t screw him up as badly as you could have done. But we’ve both seen Casper. We know the kind of shit that parents like you can pull.” Hideyoshi winced, but she wasn’t done. “And now you have your sights on my son.”

“… The boy’s important, Sarah. You know he is.”

“We can agree on that.” Sarah nodded. “And if you ever manage to hurt him the way you’ve hurt the rest of your family, I’ll-” she cut herself off with a huff. “Ugh. I don’t know how to end that sentence.”

Hideyoshi hesitated.

“I never knew you hated us,” he murmured.

“I don’t,” she answered. “But you are broken. You always have been.” The two of them sat in silence for a moment while she finished off her cigarette. She dropped the stub in an empty coffee cup and sighed. “Get out of my house.”

Hideyoshi stood, took his stick, and calmly walked away. He climbed the stairs to the door of James’ room before he left.

Again, he tried to ignore the sobs.

“If you don’t want to lose people like that again,” he murmured. “You’ll need to be stronger. Training starts tomorrow.”


James:

James cried. Huddled under the covers of his bed. He cried.

Tomorrow, he would train. He would grow. He wouldn’t let this happen again.

For now, though, he cried.

Sometimes, that is all we have.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE:

And finally, we reach the end of book one. Woot! *Toots a small horn.*

This has been a big project and I’m kinda super proud of how far I’ve managed to get. Thank you to everyone who has helped me get this far. Book two will begin soon, although there may be a short hiatus (a week or two, maybe.) to allow me to go over some of the prior chapters and make some edits.

All that said. It’s the end of an arc, so BONUS CHAPTER VOTES!

Ok. Later!

Tide: 7.6

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Charlie:

There’s a kind of primal panic in suffocation. A kind of shock. Limbs act of their own accord. Lungs wrestle against themselves. The conscious mind is put on hold, supplanted by instincts and an ice-white fear.

‘I can’t breathe.’

The boy had never experienced it before.

There was water in his throat. He flailed, his legs kicking for the far distant surface, his hands rising to his neck, trying to do something about the pressure in his chest. He tried to scream, water passing painfully across his vocal chords.

He was going to die.

The lava man reached for him, then recoiled as the boy sent another amber bolt spinning through the water, a bare fraction as powerful as the last. Above them, his companion screamed, the stress of it seeming to almost bend the water around them out of shape.

He had to hold on.

A portal. If he could just make a portal. He tried to focus. His lungs seized. His legs curled themselves in against his chest, even as he tried to paddle his way up. He was sinking.

The lava man stepped towards him, a glow of buried light shining up from underneath them.

His body hit the seafloor with a muffled thump. Whatever barriers had been placed over him were fading. He felt his skin grow hot.

He didn’t want to die like this.

The edges of his vision began to fade as the lava man stood over him, a single burning hand reaching down towards his chest. He felt his skin cooking even as he tried to pull away.

His companion reached them with a soundless roar, bearing down with desperate speed. Forty feet. Twenty. The lava man jerked towards it, one burning hand clamping down on Charlie’s wrist, his free arm raising as the ground below them split, another spire of molten glass spewing forth from underneath. His companion neither countered, nor dodged, instead slamming itself against the lava man’s counter at ramming speed.

The ocean roared. The earth shook. The boy had a moment to register the sea of molten glass beneath the oily floor, before his companion’s body struck them, and all three were plunged down into it.

Pain. Glass. Fire.

He felt it pulsing across his being, writhing as if every inch of him was on fire. The shock was such that it took a moment to realize the agony wasn’t his.

He’d stopped choking. His throat still ached and his lungs still heaved with the strain of trying to breathe; but he wasn’t dying. His barrier was back as well, flaring gently around him as tonne after tonne of melted silt flowed on about his form. For a moment, he was confused. Then he understood.

His companion was suffering. He could feel it nearby, half-buried in the molten silt and boiling sea, its barriers thrown aside in the need to keep him safe. He tried to offer it some comfort, but his voice was too quiet.

He started swimming through the glass, already searching frantically through the spells buried inside the creature’s mind. Attacks. Transmission of energies. Summoned allies. No. No. He needed healing. He had to help. A spell for cold? Cold would do. He latched on to his companion’s power, and began to shape it in his mind.

He made it less than halfway towards his friend before the lava man re-emerged, darting up before him as he made his approach; barely visible amidst the glow, even from a foot or so away. The man looked to the boy, then to his companion, his expression angry, puzzled. The boy had no time for him.

The lava man reached forwards, something sparking power about his arms. The boy was too quick for him.

The cold-snap left his body in a pulse, omni-directional and quick. The ambient glow faded just as fast as it had filled his sight, his world now solid; his movement hindered. His friend’s pain died down a tad at that. He wondered if he’d managed to freeze the ocean overhead.

The boy wasn’t the only one stuck, it seemed. The lava man went still as the world around them turned to crystal, the light of his own form fading to a barely present glow.

That wasn’t to last for long, it seemed. Even as the boy watched, the man once more began to move, the heat flowing out around him as his inner light returned. The glass softened. The man inched forward.

The boy had neither the time nor the inclination to be gentle. He plunged into his companion’s mind, and pulled out the most violent power he could find. He gritted his teeth as the glass around him split, then pushed his body forwards.

Pure kinetic force. Unfocused. Angry.

His punch was such that the world around them broke, the newly contiguous plateau of frozen silt fracturing into a hundred thousand shards as the lava man passed through it. The boy spared no thought for how far the man had gone. He was focused on his friend.

The creature was struggling, its tendrils writhing against the bedrock in an effort to pull it free, even as every motion tore new wounds in its fire-blackened skin.

Its voice was plaintive in his mind. Fearful. Small.

He moved to its side and gave what help he could. A spell to dig at the shell of rock around it, another one to push it free.

When they found the water again, the lava man was gone. So too was the creature that had tried to wrestle with his friend. Looking up, though, the boy still saw the star man up above. He could have sworn he saw the light of it glowing brighter.

For the first time, his companion wanted them to run. The boy shook his head. The star man would only follow them if they fled. The boy had no intent to let him.

His companion’s energy was weakening; five spells’ worth of borrowed force, each cast with a mountain-weight of strength, and each made wasteful by his total lack of skill. Their power waned. He had to think this through.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi watched his wife retreat, and gave a nod. Good. That should be far enough.

It was going well, all things considered. Whatever Peter had done before Charlie sent his body flying from the water had clearly caused the Whale harm. It moved slower now, each tendril jerking spasmodically as it tried and failed to swim without causing its body further harm. Something had broken down its shield. Perhaps it was weakened by whatever powers Charlie was digging into.

It didn’t matter. Tsuru and Peter were clear. This would all be over soon. He put his hands together, and readied his attack.

He would use everything he had for this. Every drop of power, compressed first into an orb between his hands. Then he would cast it into the depths. A harpoon of solid sunlight, built to skewer him a Whale. He charged it up.

The portal opened some twenty feet above him, a two foot hole in spacetime, letting forth a torrent of water. He let it sizzle off him with a laugh.

‘Nice try, Charlie. Water might dampen fire, but you’ll need more of it than tha-’

The boy’s body heat vanished from below him, only to re-emerge above his head.

Hideyoshi put all his strength into his shield. Then Charlie punted him into the sea.


Charlie:

Another portal saw him back at his companion’s side just as the sea above began to burn. He couldn’t help but spare a glance at it as he pulled himself into place on his companion’s back.

It was quite a sight, the star-man’s body flaring sporadically amidst an ever expanding plume of subaquatic steam, the heat of his body doing its utmost to hold back the rushing tide around him.

It wasn’t enough. The boy watched as the star man began his climb towards the surface. Slow, fighting for every inch of distance, yet making headway all the same. The boy shrugged. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would do. He placed a hand on one of his companion’s fins.

It was time for them to run.

The creature moved slowly, at first; limping, injured. He told it to go faster and, scarred skin creaking and cracking at the stress, his friend complied. He did his best to share the pain. They could not afford to slow.

Already, he could feel the enemy gaining ground, even if every glance behind them showed him nought but empty water. He knew their third pursuer wasn’t giving up.

Sure enough, after less than a minute, there it was, the elongated shape of that silvered water-dragon winding ever onward in their slipstream, so vast that the depths obscured it well before he had a chance to spy the tail. The boy doubted his friend could make it through another bout with the thing. He silently begged for greater speed.

Already close to breaking with the pain, his friend complied.

The following minutes were tense. That final burst of effort had been enough. They were pulling ahead once more. Their progress was slow, painfully slow, every second of it a strain. Inch by inch, the boy and his beast regained their ground.

The dragon’s head was barely more than a distant shadow in the water when the final disaster struck. When it did, it was something of a surprise.

A faint pop.

A spark of light below them.

He cast his gaze around. Nothing.

One second. Two. Three.

A female figure suspended above them in the water, sparking green light dancing about her form.

The sight connected to something in his brain. A forest full of long dead trees and fog.

‘Aw, crap. It’s James’ grandma.’

What unfolded from the woman then was like sewing thread, a thousand or more strands of it, floating loose of her and extending through the water; the closest thing to a jellyfish this ocean had ever seen.

They tried to swim beneath it. Tsuru Toranaga drifted down to meet them. The strands began to catch, and where they caught, they stuck, anchoring on his companion’s flesh like steel cords and superglue.

His companion thrashed, trying to pull away. That only caused more of them to catch, tangling on tendrils and fins. Binding. Slowing.

Behind them, the dragon started gaining ground.

The beast roared. The boy did the same.

This wasn’t fair. They had almost nothing left. He glared at the woman up above them, then launched himself towards her.

To his credit, this action caught the woman by surprise. Partly because it was dumb. Within the first few feet, he was entangled. By the time he reached her, he could barely move.

But he did reach her.

He dug into what remained of his companion’s might. As the dragon bore down upon them, the boy twisted a palm towards Tsuru Toranaga, a bolt of amber aimed towards her gut, too close for her to dodge.

The woman vanished with a quiet pop.

So did the threads.

They were free. The dragon was right behind them.

He re-connected with his companion. The two began to flee once mo-

The ocean split.

That was when James Toranaga plunged his wind-bound hand through the sea, wrapped his fingers around the creature’s form, and began to drag it up.

That was all it took for the dragon to catch up, its snakelike body coiling and wrapping about his friend, its claws scratching. Teeth ripping. His friend barely had the strength left to fight. All the while, James yelled, dragging them ever closer to the surface.

He knew that voice. He knew the face that it connected to. He knew James, whether in part or in full, he wasn’t sure. He knew that yell. James cared too much about things, sometimes. God, he could be loud. The boy was his friend. That was why this was going to suck.

James’ arm had punched a hole, a pillar of stable air between his companion and the surface. Charlie stepped into it.

“James?”

Nothing changed. Charlie took a breath.

“If you don’t back off, I’m gonna die.”

The yelling stopped.

“… What?” his friend asked. “How?”

Charlie shrugged.

“I dunno. I guess I’ll find a way.”

When James spoke again, his voice was angry.

“Dude,” he muttered. “I swear, if you give me any more of your stupid crap. I’m gonna-”

Charlie raised a finger to his throat, the tip of it slightly glowing. James stopped.

This felt shitty. He wished he knew how to explain.

“Look,” he tried. “I’m… broken. It’s-” he gestured to the beast beneath his feet. “My friend. It’s fixing me. I don’t want it to stop.”

“… You’re not gonna kill yourself, Charlie.”

At that, all the boy could do was shrug.

“Maybe,” he said honestly. “I dunno. I just-” he swept a loose gesture with his free arm about himself. “I don’t like this. At all. Don’t make me figure out how it has to end.”

For a long time, the two were quiet; beneath them, even the beasts had fallen still. Tsuru emerged overhead. She didn’t speak. She was frowning.

“Charlie,” James tried, his voice almost pleading. “This is wrong.”

“Yeah.” Charlie muttered. “Sorry.”

“Don’t follow me.”

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