Need: 9.3

Previous Chapter:

James:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Yes,” he said eventually. “That.”

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

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

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

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

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

“… You too, huh?” she said bitterly.

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

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

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

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

“… Is she okay?” he asked eventually.

Casper shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper chuckled. “Fair.”

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

Eventually, Casper cleared his throat.

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

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

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

James sighed.

“Thanks, Casper.”


Jackie:

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

Jackie laughed angrily.

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

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

Jackie swore.

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

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

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

Peter shrugged.

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

Jackie slapped him. He didn’t flinch.

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

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

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

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

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

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


James:

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

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

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

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

Casper shrugged.

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

James looked up from his phone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Casper smirked.

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

James threw a pillow at him.

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

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

James raised an eyebrow at that, half-smiling.

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

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

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

James gave a playful groan of his own.

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

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

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

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

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

Casper glanced across at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James gave his friend a glare, then a groan.

“… What if we can’t fix it, though?”

Casper shrugged.

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

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

He slumped backwards on the bed.

“… The kiss was a dick move, dude.”

Casper snickered.

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

Need: 9.2

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Bermuda:

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t I remember this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Casper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For ten months?” he asked.

Casper shrugged.

“Yeah. I had stuff going on.”

James let out a put upon sigh.

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

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

“Ok. Why this time, though?”

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

Casper grinned.

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

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

Casper snickered at that.

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

To his credit, James took the jab rather smoothly.

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

Casper’s grin widened.

“No wonder you got so star-struck.”

“Did not!” James retorted playfully.

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

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

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

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

Crap.

“… Too far?” Casper asked.

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

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

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

Casper almost shrugged.

I mean, you are.

Out loud, he merely grunted.

“Ok. And?”

James sighed.

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

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

C’mon, man. Don’t be that guy.

“Ok. So, what do you think?”

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

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

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

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

“It is?”

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

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

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

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

Casper considered that, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Okay. Whatever.”

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Need: 9.1

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James:

“Okay,” Tasha said evenly as James lined up his shot. “So you went out with a boy in Oregon-”

“We sorta made out a little, too,” he noted, sending a condensed gust of wind swooshing down the range of the gymnasium. It struck his target dead on, sending it clacking back against the rail along which it moved, built into the far wall of the space. He glanced across the way to make sure his father was still out of earshot.

Tasha scoffed, then returned to setting up her weights.

“No you didn’t,” she said, examining the plates currently attached to the barbell frame, and opting to add an extra one on either side. “I know you, James. No way.”

James bristled at that.

“I did tho!”

“Did you use tongues?” she asked, hefting a weight one handed and sliding it into place along the bar.

“Well, no, but-”

“Did it last more than five seconds?”

James’ cheeks reddened. He began lining up his next target.

“… Maybe like, two and a half.”

Tasha grinned.

“That’s called kissing, dude. It’s not the same as making out.”

“Like you’d know,” he muttered. He took a second shot, and, to his satisfaction, watched another target snap satisfyingly back.

Her smile turned sly.

“And who says I don’t?” she asked, sliding into a ready position with her back against the bench, hands gripping the bar above her. “Spot me?”

That got James’ attention.

“… Caleb?” he guessed, stepping up alongside the machine as she made ready. “Did one of you finally make a move?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she teased, before starting up her set, her shoulders straining as they took the weight. For the first second or so, nothing happened. Then, with a heave of effort, the bar began to lift.

“One,” James counted, watching each rep as he shifted himself down beside his partner’s head. He laid a hand against her shoulder. “Two, three…”

By the fifteenth rep, Tasha was heaving, her teeth gritting with the strain as she struggled against the weight. She lowered the bar back onto the bracket, and James allowed himself to slide away from the bench.

“D’you think you maybe go a bit too hard with this stuff sometimes?” he asked, his voice mild.

Tasha grunted, leaning down to grab her water bottle from its spot beside the bench.

“If it isn’t hard, then it’s not enough,” she muttered between impressively sized gulps of water. “No pain, no gain. That’s how you know it’s working.”

“I don’t know if that works when you’re trying to bench like-” he made a rough estimate of the weights currently loaded onto the machine. “- Five thousand pounds, ish?”

She took another long pull from her water bottle, then shrugged.

“I dunno,” she answered. “Sounds like quitter talk. Think I got buff with quitter talk?”

James conceded the point with a snicker. While he had spent the past nine months learning whatever magical skills his grandparents had deigned to teach him, Tasha had spent the time working on her physicality with a single minded focus. Gone was the naturally lackluster teenage body fat and posture. Now, she bore a striking resemblance to the person she’d always acted like; corded with muscle, head to toe.

“You are kind of a chad,” he admitted. “That’s not cuz of how you talk, though. That’s just cuz you’re insane.”

“Same diff,” she replied, laying back down for another set. “C’mon. You’re still spotting me.”

James rolled his eyes, and resumed his position by her head.

“Ready.” Under his careful eye, Tasha once more began to strain against the weight. “One,” he counted. “Two, three…”

Tasha made it all the way to ten before her arms locked up, her face knotting up with effort as she fought against a weight roughly equivalent to that of a camper van.

“You can do it, Tash,” James said, his voice encouraging. “Come on. You’re a beast. You can-”

Tasha let out a bark of effort as she pushed with everything she had- only for her arms to give out. The barbell slipped from her grip and fell, slamming against her chest with the force of an industrial accident. The impact sent a thin series of cracks radiating out across the surface of the barrier James had raised around her. A couple people glanced across at them from around the gym.

“Nice work,” James said brightly. “Ten whole reps. That’s pretty good.”

“Mmh,” Tasha grumbled, awkwardly shrugging herself out from under the barbell’s weight, one end of it sliding off of her and hitting the floor with a thump. “It’s fine. Long as I have to work for it. Thanks for catching it.”

“You’re welcome,” James murmured with a smile, pulling his hand away from her shoulder as she slumped off of the bench, allowing the shield to fade. “Still think you’re pushing too hard.”

“Eh, maybe,” she grumbled half-heartedly. She reached for her water bottle again, her hands a little shaky this time. “So. You met a guy. You had a pathetic tweenie makeout. What’s the problem?”

James groaned.

“The problem’s-” he hesitated, once more scanning the gymnasium to be sure his dad was out of earshot. He spotted the man a couple dozen feet away, currently working at a rowing machine. He lowered his voice to a whisper regardless. “The problem’s Casper.

“Ah.” Tasha nodded. “You’re still into him, huh?”

“… Well, no,” James muttered. “Not exactly.” Tasha raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. He scowled. “I mean it! It’s just. Ok. Cody was great, right? He was cute, and fun, and tall, and he wasn’t a pushover, which is kind of awesome. But like…” he took a breath, unwilling to meet her gaze for what came next. “I couldn’t talk to him about stuff the way I can with Casper. And it felt weird sometimes, cuz I knew he wanted me to talk to him like that.”

Tasha took a prolonged sip of water, clearly thinking through what he had said.

“So, basically,” she murmured. “you’re telling me you’re still thirsty over Casper.”

James sucked a breath between his teeth in indignation, his cheeks scarlet.

“I am not thirsty!

Tasha snorted.

“Don’t lie, man,” she taunted, a touch too loud for James’ comfort. “You want him so bad.”

“I do not!” he hissed, shooting a furtive glance towards his father, still a good few dozen feet away. “And keep your voice down!”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, confused.

“Uh. Why?”

James made a ‘duh’ gesture.

“Cuz my dad might hear!”

Tasha cocked her head.

“Ok… And?”

“And he doesn’t know yet!” James snapped. “I’m still in the-” he huffed, and forced himself to speak a mite more calmly. “I haven’t come out yet, okay?”

Tasha nodded, still a touch confused.

“Okay,” she said, lowering her voice a fraction. “Why not, though?”

James groaned at that, his eyes shifting to the floor. In honesty, he didn’t have a reason. He trusted his dad, and knew full well that he’d probably take it fine. That didn’t help with the anxiety that bubbled in his stomach every time he tried to say the words out loud.

“Cuz what if it makes things weird?” he muttered, a touch defensive. “After all the stuff that happened last year. What if-”

“No, no,” Tasha cut him off. “James. That’s not it. I’m asking, like. Why haven’t you talked about it? I mean, he’s probably figured it out by now, you know?”

“What?” James asked, wrong-footed. “Uh. No, he hasn’t. Not unless you told him… Please say you haven’t told him.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Tasha reassured. “Still, tho. I’m pretty sure he knows.”

James scowled, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous.

“Ok. So, how does he know?”

Tasha shrugged.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked. James nodded, so she continued. “You’re just really obvious about it.”

James gasped. He was offended.

“I am not!”

“Dude, you go bright red when you even see a guy you have a crush on. I will bet you a shiny dollar he already knows. Have things been weird so far?”

“… No,” James allowed. “It’s been pretty good with him lately. But that doesn’t matter, cuz he doesn’t know.”

“Does too.”

“Does not!” he snapped. “I will bet you ten shiny dollars!”

“Deal.” Tasha grinned. “So tell him.”

“Ugh, fine!” he snarled. “You suck at helping!”

“Fine, fine,” she snickered, raising her hands. “Go over the problem for me one more time. I’ll be serious. I swear.”

James glared at her for a moment, then sighed.

“Am I allowed to share more with a friend than with my boyfriend?” he asked. “Is that even fair?”

To her credit, Tasha gave that one some thought, the humor dropping from her face as she put her mind more genuinely towards the problem he’d put forward. Eventually, she shrugged.

“Just do what feels right, my dude,” she answered. “You trust Casper with the hard stuff cuz he’s your friend. You’ve walked through deep shit together. Of course you trust him more than some newbie. He’s reliable. A couple dates aren’t changing that.”

James thought on that for a moment, then let out a breath.

“… Thanks, Tasha.” Then, he grumbled: “See? Was that so hard?”


The journey home was spectacularly awkward. James bade Tasha goodbye at the entrance to the gym, before joining his father in the car.

To his credit, Peter did the best he could; as usual, using the momentary confinement as an opportunity to touch base with his son. As was always the case, though, communication became a good deal harder when there was actually something to talk about. James answered sporadically, at best. His focus was elsewhere.

Just tell him, he told himself again and again. It’s fine. He’s Dad. You can trust him.

“I got the report from Finch today,” Peter was saying. “He says you did well in Oregon. He’s giving you a passing grade.”

“He is?” James muttered. “But I was freaking out the whole time.”

Peter chuckled.

“He mentioned that. But he also stressed that even when pressured or caught off guard, your first priority was always to maintain secrecy and minimize civilian risk. You performed well as part of a team, and you knew when to call for extra help. It’s a good report card. I’m proud of you.”

Peter reached across the divide to momentarily ruffle his son’s hair. James couldn’t help but smile at that, his cheeks a little pink.

“… Thanks, Dad.”

Just tell him, James. You can do it.

He took a deep breath.

Peter was talking again, something about potentially training him up to be part of Finch’s response team once he’d finished school. Normally, James might have found that more exciting.

“Uh, Dad?” he interrupted, his gaze steadily pointed at his shoes. “Can I say something?”

Peter glanced across at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Of course you can,” he replied, his voice touched by the faintest hint of concern. “You can always talk to me, James. No matter what. What’s on your mind?”

James nodded. He took a deep breath, then another. He was finding the air strangely thin for a boy who no longer had any need for oxygen. He shook himself.

“I-” he swallowed. “I’ve… Kinda known for a while, and I know I shoulda told you sooner, but…”

“What?” Peter asked, his voice deliberately calm. “Not interested in this line of work anymore?”

“No,” James muttered. “It’s not that. There was-” he swallowed, the words almost fighting to remain inside his throat. “There was a boy… Back in Oregon.”

There was silence there. James couldn’t quite look his father in the eye.

“Dad… I’m gay.”

Peter inclined his head.

“Yes you are,” he acknowledged. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

James took a second to reboot at that. The first emotion to surface was a faint annoyance.

“That was it,” he muttered, deflated.

“Oh!” his father realized, apparently relieved. “I see. Okay. Yeah. I know.”

James scowled.

“You could at least pretend to be surprised.”

Peter snickered.

“I am shocked and amazed by this revelation. That better?”

“Yes,” James muttered, folding his arms. “Much.”

Another momentary quiet, before:

“Love you, Dad.”

“Love you too.”

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Hunt: 8.11

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James:

The two boys walked the earthen pathway back to town in relative quiet; both half-marvelling at the newfound stillness of their environment. The patter of the rain had become such a constant that James had almost tuned it out. Now that it was gone, its absence almost rang in his ears.

It was nice, a break in the clouds allowing the last thin shafts of early evening sunlight to splay across the canopy, picking out the rich greens and browns of the reserve in a gentle orange. James liked the smell; rich earth and freshness.

“So,” Cody asked as they crested a small hill. “What happens now?”

James shrugged.

“I dunno, really,” he said. “I’ve never done this part before. We tell Finch, I guess. Then he can take it to the home office, and they’ll see what they can do now that Whiskers is being an adult.”

“Think they can get ‘em home?”

James sighed at that.

“Probably not,” he admitted. “Getting through to other worlds is super hard. There’s only a handful of people who can do it. Even then, finding the right planet’s really tough. Maybe if they find the hole that it got dumped here through? Not much chance outside of that.”

Cody cocked his head at that, starting slowly down the hill towards the lake.

“So… Going to other planets is still a thing, right? You’re not just messing with me?”

“Oh, yeah,” James replied. “I was on one for a while. It was… pretty.”

Cody snickered, then shook his head.

“You’re kinda surreal, you know that?”

James raised an eyebrow.

“I am?”

“Yeah.” Cody glanced back at him, and caught the surprise in his expression. He elaborated: “Okay. Like… How’d you know all this stuff?” he asked. “Where’d you learn it?”

“My grandparents, mostly.” James shrugged. “They’ve been doing monster hunter stuff for a couple hundred years- and, yeah, I get it. It feels weird for me too. I’ve been surrounded by it all for a year now, and some of it used to freak me out, too. I know it’s a lot. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Cody murmured. 

James wasn’t really sure why he had. It felt awkward.

A short quiet, then Cody carried on:

“It’s not a bad thing. Just…. Intense. I don’t know what to do with it sometimes. Like when you start talking like a war vet, or I find out you’re a rape survivor, and I’m not supposed to mention it. Just a lot of stuff where I don’t know what to say.”

James winced.

“Trust me. With the rape stuff, just leave it. If I wanna talk, I will.”

“Okay. Fair,” Cody answered hurriedly. “But, I mean… I’m your boyfriend. Aren’t we supposed to be able to talk about this stuff?”

James laughed at that, then raised a placating hand when Cody scowled.

“I mean, yeah. You’re my boyfriend, but… I mean. I’ve known you for like. Five days. I don’t even tell my parents or my therapist some of what’s up here.” He tapped his head. “We made out one time. There’s kind of a gap there.”

Cody conceded the point with a sigh.

“Well… You should talk to someone.”

I usually talk to Casper.

James did not say that. It felt like the wrong time to admit that he confided more with his cute roommate than with his somewhat boyfriend. Life was weird. He changed the subject.

“Speaking of. What do we do with that?”

“Hmm?” Cody hummed. “Do with what?”

“Well,” James shrugged. “I’m done here, right? I’m probably gonna be heading home in a couple days. Does that mean we break it off, or…?”

There was an uncomfortable shared silence there.

“We could try long distance?” Cody pointed out. “I heard it sucks, but at least it’s something… Do you want to keep this going?”

James considered that a moment. Did he? That was a hard question, now that he thought about it.

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “… Not really?” He raised a placating hand when Cody winced. “I know. I’m sorry. I just… I kinda thought you were gonna be a vacation boyfriend. Like. Try some stuff together, then go home and get on with my life, you know?”

Cody sighed, but nodded.

“Yeah, I do.”

James took a breath.

“But it feels unfair, cuz we never went on a real date, with all the monster fights, and I… Kinda feel like I owe you more?”

“Dude,” Cody snickered. “You don’t owe me anything. I knew you were gonna be leaving when I asked you out. It’s fine.”

James gave a weak smile.

“… Thanks, Cody. You were a good boyfriend, for what it’s worth.”

The silence after that lasted just long enough to become awkward.

“C’mon,” Cody muttered. “Let’s get back. They’ll be worried.”


Finch:

Not for the first time, Agent Finch tried calling James’ phone.

“The number you are calling has been disconnected.” 

He swore, then went back to scanning the mud beneath his feet.

He’d given up tracking James early on. The boy’s footprints were surprisingly hard to make out along the mossy ground, even with the cessation of the rain. He was too light. His tracks weren’t deep, and he had a tendency to float without thinking for a few dozen feet at a time when there weren’t any civilians around. It made following after him near impossible. Luckily, the trail the nature spirit left behind was a little clearer.

The situation in Rockford had been sorted; he’d knocked down a tree into the hole in the cinema wall before the solitary staff member had noticed it was even there. No witnesses. They’d been lucky. Then, with that particular crisis averted, he’d set off after his companion, as fast as he could go.

James was a good kid. He was strong, and smart, and surprisingly capable, for his age. Finch couldn’t fault him for how he’d handled the Spirit’s attack. But he was still thirteen. He was still a kid, and kids made mistakes. That made him vulnerable, no matter the foe. Finch was worried. He’d been at it for over half an hour already, and he was growing more aware with each passing second that he was losing ground.

It was as he drew near the sunken cave where he and James had first encountered the nature Spirit that he finally caught sight of them: Two figures walking together through the trees a couple hundred feet away, the evening sunlight playing oddly about their outlines. He squinted.

Young figures. Male. Adolescent, by their height. One with a rain jacket about his waist, the other with a shock of waterlogged black hair. It seemed like they were talking.

‘James? The fuck is he doing out here with Cody?’

He took a breath to call out to them both, before a new voice forestalled him, this one significantly closer.

“Please don’t. I’d like to talk to you alone.”

Finch’s head snapped around at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, his hand already half-raised into a casting stance, before he caught sight of who was speaking. An old woman leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, arms wrapped in around herself, shoulders covered by a cardigan utterly unfit for rain, refusing to shiver in the cold. He recognized her in under a second, a face right out of his mission briefing.

“… Lady Toranaga. May I ask what’s going on?”

The older woman shrugged.

“Not a lot to tell. The spirit situation’s handled, for the moment. My grandson called for some advice. I decided to observe.”

Finch scowled.

“Little shit,” he muttered. “He should have called me.”

Another shrug.

“Broke his phone. I lent him mine, but I doubt he has your number memorized.”

Finch grunted.

“And Cody?” he asked. “Is there a point to calling his boyfriend out here?”

Tsuru smirked.

“So that’s Cody, is it?” she said wrily. “I did wonder. He was called to bring out a peace offering after my grandson had the spirit subjugated.” She turned her eyes to him for a moment. “You’re the one in charge of taking James down, aren’t you.”

Finch winced. There wasn’t any point in lying. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t already know the answer. He nodded.

“Who told you?”

Tsuru snickered.

“No one. But, your government developed a counter strategy for my son. It stands to reason that you’d do so with my grandson too. His first full mission was the most opportune time to get a sense of him, so I assumed. What’s your plan, so far?”

He hesitated for a moment, then answered with a resigned shrug.

“Sedatives,” he admitted. “Aerosolized for inhalation. If that failed, probably a coordinated attack from myself and members of my team.” He saw her grin at that, and shrugged. “He’s strong, and you’ve got his instincts honed surprisingly well already. His reflexes are great, but he’s prone to tunnel vision. An arrayed attack lets us catch him off guard and crack his shield so someone has a chance to tranq him.”

A snicker.

“Good start,” Tsuru allowed. “But don’t rely on tunnel vision. I may have trained that out of him before too long.”

Finch heaved a sigh.

“Noted,” he muttered. “What about you?”

“Me?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

Finch gestured to her.

“You’re here, aren’t you? Interrogating me on the plan. Digging for information. What’s your angle? Will you try and stop us, if it comes to it?”

The witch considered him for a moment.

“That depends on your side, I think,” she said at length. “If there’s cause for it, I might support you. That’s why I allow these plans at all. Better you have an option that keeps him safe. On the other hand, if it’s done to attack my family, I’ll put an end to it. That’s all there is to say.”

Finch wasn’t sure what to say to that; either to the intimation that this woman would turn on his country if given half a mind, or to the idea of how much harm she’d cause. He kept his peace.

“I’ll pray it never comes to that,” he said evenly.

Tsuru laughed.

“Likewise. Now, come on.” She gestured towards the distant boys. “They’re almost at the lake. We might as well go meet them.” She smiled. “Not everyday you get to embarrass your grandson in front of his date.”

Finch forced a laugh.

“You’re a cruel woman, Ma’am.”

“I can be.”

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Hunt: 8.10

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Cody:

Cody would have struggled to express what was going through his head as he rinsed out his mother’s old camping thermos and started hunting for the cocoa mix. He hadn’t been able to sit still for even one moment of the last six hours.

It was all an adrenaline heavy blur. Sprinting through the rain to find Finch, his heart going a mile a minute in his chest. The expression on the older man’s face as he’d explained. The sinking feeling in his gut as the agent’s look went from bemusement, to worry, to simple military intensity.

Finch had gone into problem solving mode; fabricating excuses for the sudden hole in the cinema wall with the determined calm of a practiced expert. He’d instructed Cody to go home and wait. He’d said that James would be okay. Cody had hated every second of it.

But that was fine. It was all fine. James was okay. He sounded happy and tired and weird, but he was okay, and that would do. He’d go meet him, hand over the cocoa, and then maybe they’d get to go on a date without getting interrupted by a giant monster.

Cody felt a quiet stab of pride at that. He couldn’t help it.

‘I threw a brick at a kaiju today,’ he thought. To protect James. I’m a fucking badass. So what if it did nothing? I still did it.’

He waited for the milk to heat through, then poured it into the thermos atop the cocoa mix. He screwed the cap closed, and gave the thing a shake.

‘Right. Marshmallows.’

He grabbed a mini marshmallow pack and stuffed it in his pocket.

‘Let’s go see my boyfriend.’

“Mom! I’m heading out! I’ll see ya later!”

With that, he grabbed his waterproof, and the thermos, and stepped out into the rain. 

The jog across town was short, and when he hit the treeline by the side of the lake, he picked up speed, crashing through puddles and underbrush, all caution to the wind. He wanted this to be done with. He at least wanted to be involved.

His ten minute sprint brought him, panting lightly, to the cave mouth. He spotted James from a distance, sitting on a boulder taller than he was, one cheek resting on his palm, gazing at the phone in his other hand. The sight was nothing short of a relief.

“Hey,” Cody called as he broke the treeline. “Hey, James! Over here!”

James glanced up at the new arrival, and his expression brightened. He waved, the back of his hand slightly glowing.

“Hey, Cody. You got the cocoa?”

“Yeah,” Cody replied. “I got your cocoa, weirdo. What do ya need it for, anyways?”

James shrugged, slipping the phone into his pocket and hopping down off the boulder to greet him. He fell a tad slower than he should have done.

“Eh, nothing much. I managed to stop the Spirit trying to kill me, but now it’s upset and I promised it a treat. May I?”

He held out a hand for the thermos, but Cody didn’t move.

Purity marks, sitting dark and heavy on the skin around James’ left eye; beneath them, on his cheek, the marks of pain.

He’s had sex. He’s had sex and he didn’t tell me. Was it today? Was he hiding them? Was he lying?

James caught the staring after the first half second, and raised an eyebrow.

“Dude. You okay? What’s wrong?”

Then, realization. His face fell.

James stepped forward, and tugged the thermos from Cody’s hand.

“… I got raped last year,” he muttered, his voice low, even defensive. “It’s how I got my powers. Do me a favor and pretend you never saw, okay?”

“Oh,” Cody mumbled, suddenly deeply ashamed. “… Okay.”


James:

James kept his breathing calm and steady. This wasn’t how he’d wanted things to go. He hadn’t wanted Cody to find out. He gave a resigned internal shrug, and stepped towards the water’s edge, now sitting rather lower than it had before. He laid a palm flat against it.

“Mr. Whiskers?” he murmured. “I got the stuff. You can come out now.”

For a few seconds, nothing happened. James glanced back towards the still perturbed looking Cody.

“Oh. Uh. Cody? Just a warning. The Spirit’s gonna be here in a minute.”

Cody nodded, his expression setting into something like worry, then determination. Then, his attention shifted. Following his gaze, James saw why.

For the first time, the Spirit rose from the cave without a form; not water, wood, or gravel. It was spectral now; green foxfire glowing about its form, picking out hints of otherwise translucent fur. At least it wasn’t huge this time.

His feet left the shore as he floated forward.

“Hey,” he murmured, keeping his voice low, his emotions as level as he could. “We got the cocoa.”

There was a mild shudder as the spirit’s mind once more brushed against his own. It was oddly uncomfortable; exposed, no privacy. Was this what Casper’s power felt like? He brushed the thought aside.

The spirit hardly seemed to notice, translucent paws padding atop the water’s surface as it crossed the gap toward him. It lowered its head to the thermos, and gave it a sniff, a touch of curiosity bubbling up through the still present layer of resentment.

James chuckled.

“C’mon. Give it a try.”

He drifted back towards the shoreline at that, unscrewing the cap and setting it down on the rocks. Then, carefully, he poured the tiger some hot cocoa.

The spirit was tentative, at first, prowling, examining. It didn’t trust him.

Fair enough.

He backed away a little, letting it draw closer. The spirit stooped down, and lapped at the slightly steaming fluid.

Consideration, then grudging satisfaction.

James had a sister. He knew the sensation well.

“Do we have any marshmallows?” he asked, shooting an over the shoulder glance at Cody.

“Oh,” the other boy muttered, fumbling awkwardly in his coat pocket. “Right. Sure. Yeah.” A moment later, he produced a clear plastic packet, and tossed it across to James, who peeled it open.

“Right,” said James. “Mr. Whiskers, these are called mini-marshmallows, and they are going to change your life, okay?” He poured a couple into his hand, and proffered it towards the spirit.

For its part, the spirit stepped forward, examined the spongy mass for a moment, then scooped it out of James’ palm.

The sensation as a tongue that wasn’t entirely solid licked partway through his hand to get at the treat was almost impossible to describe. The spirit chewed for a moment, swallowed, then let out a huff, seeming to shrug.

“… Well, I think they’re cool.”

He sat at that, aware of the uncomfortable equilibrium in which they found themselves. The tiger, for its part, went back to the hot chocolate.

What to do now?

He thought in silence for a while, only brought out of it when the tiger let out a grunt, gently headbutting the side of the thermos flask.

“Oh. You want some more? Okay.”

He poured another cup, and, in the clearest way he could, asked the biggest question on his mind:

Pictures of the rain; the lake slowly overflowing, the puddles, the damp. He projected it forward into their shared mental space, and laced it through with as much curiosity as he could.

‘Why?’

If he hadn’t been able to feel what the spirit was feeling, he’d have thought it had ignored him. It lowered its head for another drink, fresh emotions roiling in its head, pushing that weakening resentment to the side.

Loss. Pain. Fear. Loneliness. A sense of longing. The gradual death of hope.

The creature pushed each of those emotions forward; an explanation.

James winced. He’d felt something similar before, his night spent stranded in the other world with Charlie. He composed his answer.

He shared a memory. Himself, sitting on a beach, with the body of a comatose friend, staring at a trio of unfamiliar moons. He put forward each of those same emotions in their turn, then another; sympathy. The spirit wouldn’t look at him at that. He reached out, his knuckles grazing at the creature’s jaw. It didn’t pull away. He scritched it behind the ear.

“Long way from home, huh?” he murmured, his voice low.

Well, maybe that was something they could fix.

Awkwardly, not one hundred percent sure of how to word it, James put his question forward.

An image of himself, then an image of his house. Pictures of his room, and how it felt to sink into the pillows of his bed after a long day’s work. Pictures of his sister, and the feeling of how she drove him crazy, and how he’d do anything to keep her safe. Pictures of Casper, and that feeling of comfy familiarity. The satisfaction of a friendship, and the lingering awkwardness of attraction- He moved on from Casper. He showed images of his parents, and shared with it how safe they made him feel. Then, he pulled away from that, and showed the picture of his house again, cramming as many of those feelings inside that image as he could. Then, he showed a picture of the spirit, that ghostly green mega tiger, and coupled it with curiosity.

‘Where is home for you?’

There was a quiet moment, before the spirit finally responded.

He had expected an image of a forest. Maybe something with a landmark that could be used to guide the creature home. What he got was a good deal more:

Standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a canyon that one could run through for days without seeming to reach the end. The majesty of it. 

The sight of diminutive paradise birds dancing in the air, swooping and gliding to impress potential partners, their coats casting rainbow glimmers over a rapid flowing stream. Their grace. Their elegance. 

Running under the belly of a canyon crawler as it strode above the trees, like a towering, crystal axolotl; the largest of all the creatures in its realm.

The sensation of running and roaring for days and nights through fallen leaves of every color, shedded by the trees above as they made ready for the coming winter.

The brisk cold at the highest peak of its domain. The grandeur of its home sprawling out below. A cloak of life about the world.

Standing before an unknown biped. A struggle, then stranded in an unfamiliar place.

Then came grief. Then came rain.

“Oh,” James realized. “I… Uh. I don’t know how to help with that.”

“Help with what?” Cody asked, confused.

“It’s not from Earth,” James replied, a little stunned. “It’s from somewhere else and it can’t get home. That’s why it’s pissed off.”

“… So,” Cody muttered. “… It’s an alien?”

James gave a bemused kind of shrug.

“I mean, kinda. Yeah.”

He pondered that for a minute. He couldn’t offer to send it home. He wasn’t even sure if they could find where the spirit’s home was, and that was with help. He settled for showing it his sympathy.

It huffed.

He sighed.

“I’m gonna… try a thing,” he muttered. “Not sure if it’s gonna work.”

“Try what?” Cody asked, stopping momentarily in his slow movement towards the spirit.

“I dunno,” James replied. “Relating to it, I guess?”

He hesitated, then posed his next question as Cody finished his brave advance, and cautiously began patting the creature on the shoulder.

Images of the reserve, drenched in rain. The few brief glimpses of wildlife he’d seen out here. Squirrels. The monster from the lake. He put forward a tentative sense of joy, then curiosity.

‘Is there anything here you like?’

The spirit didn’t look at him. Instead, it turned a baleful eye on Cody. The boy didn’t quite flinch, but his petting halted. It grunted, and nuzzled his wrist with the side of its head.

Cody awkwardly started scratching its head, and it returned its eyes to James.

An image; industrious creatures building a fortress in a pond, assembling it from fallen sticks and timber. A sense of satisfaction.

“… Huh. Beavers,” James murmured, a little underwhelmed. The spirit growled. “Nono, that’s fine! Beavers are cool, we have more stuff like that.” He fumbled hurriedly around for a memory to share. A few visits to a zoo. He showed it a giraffe.

Curiosity.

“Okay. Okay, cool. You like animals. Well, check out this one.” He showed it a kangaroo.

The spirit cocked its head, confused.

“Yeah, no,” James snickered. “We don’t get it either. Australians are weird.”

“James?” Cody murmured.

“Hold up,” James replied. “I wanna show em a koala-”

“Dude,” the other boy insisted, flicking him on the shoulder. “Look. The rain’s stopped.”

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