Bonus Chapter: Natalie Sharpe.

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Doctor’s notes, Subject #24170. James Toranaga. Session 3.

Notes and recommendations of attendant therapist, Natalie Sharpe:

  It has been three weeks since the previous session, due in large part to my own overloaded schedule in the aftermath of the elvish attacks. During the last week it has become apparent that James did in fact manifest abilities in the aftermath of his assault. For this reason, use of the David pseudonym has been removed. Current classification is a tentative type three. Directed self-levitation combined with aerokinetic abilities, and some form of transformational spell. He has recently initiated metaphysics training with a team of master-level field assets (his grandparents.)

  James’ parents both note a more secure sense that James is no longer hiding things from them since the discovery of his powers, and the household seems to be adjusting well to the integration of Casper Sullivan. Parents do note, however, that the relationship between the two seems to have grown slightly tense over the past few days. Sarah notes that she heard the two of them fighting, shortly before James asked to be allowed out for a walk.

  Additionally, during the elvish attack, it seems that James was struck at least once by some form of lightning blast. Be prepared to address the subject, should it be raised.

  Personal note from attendant therapist: ‘Jeez. Why did this have to get so complex?’

  Doctor Sharpe is reminded that even if the patient is not privy to her notes, professionalism does still have an inherent value.

Transcript of audio-visual session recording taken down by Supervisor Pearson is as follows:

James enters, closes the door behind him, and remains still for several seconds. He watches Doctor Sharpe, apparently nervous.

Doctor Sharpe: “Hi, James. It’s good to see you again.”

James: “Hey.”

A pause.

James: “So. Um. You know about, uh, everything, right?”

Doctor Sharpe smiles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Yes, James. I know you have powers. I’m a little jealous, actually. The flight sounds very freeing.”

James smiles.

James: “Heh. Yeah, you have no idea. It’s like I’m all alone up there, you know? I dunno why it feels so good.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Wanna show me?”

James: “Kinda.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles, before moving to close her window blinds. James takes a seat on the ceiling.

Doctor Sharpe: “Comfortable up there?”

James: “I feel like kind of a dork. Do I look like a dork?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Maybe.”

Doctor Sharpe returns to her seat.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Your parents told me your nightmares have been getting better.”

James: “Yeah. They have. I mean, they’re not gone or anything, but they’re not every night any more. I kinda went through some stuff lately. It feels a little smaller now.”

A pause.

James: “Is that weird?”

Doctor Sharpe: “It doesn’t need to be. Do you mind telling me what you think it was that changed things?”

James: “I… A friend of mine. I uh. I told her about what happened. She…”

A pause.

James: “She said it didn’t stop me being strong.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Sounds like a good friend.”

James: “She is.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Speaking of friends, how are things going with Casper? I heard he started cooking dinner lately.”

A pause.

James: “Things are fine.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “Is he a good cook?”

James: “Yeah. I guess.”

A pause.

James: “Okay, yeah. It’s really good. Just… He’s. Ugh. He’s such a doof.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Language.”

James: “Sorry.”

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Why’s he a doof?”

James scowls.

James: “He-”

James hesitates for several moments.

James: “Nothing.”

Doctor Sharpe: “You sure?”

James folds his arms.

James: “Yeah.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay.”

Neither James nor Doctor Sharpe speaks for several seconds. Doctor Sharpe tilts her notes so that James cannot see them, and begins doodling small cat faces in the corner of a page.

James: “Alright, fine.”

Doctor Sharpe stops drawing cat faces.

James: “So, we were at school playing wizard cards with some friends of mine, and one of them hugged me.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay. And?”

James: “And… And I kinda blushed, okay? And Casper kinda saw.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “And?”

James: “And now he thinks I like boys or something. I dunno.”

Doctor Sharpe: “And you’re saying you don’t?”

James: *Indignant* “No!”

A pause. James flushes slightly.

James: “I mean. I don’t think so.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, I have to ask. Would it be a problem if you did?”

James glares at Doctor Sharpe, who does not react. After a few seconds, he looks at his knees instead.

James: “I don’t wanna be gay.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Why not?”

James: “Cuz I don’t wanna be like the guy who hurt me.”

The two are silent for roughly thirty seconds. Doctor Sharpe sighs.

Doctor Sharpe: “If I offered you a soda, would you please come down off my ceiling? It’s hurting my neck having to look at you up there.”

James detaches from the ceiling, and seats himself in the chair, hugging his knees.

James: “Have you got coke?”

Doctor Sharpe stands, moves to the fridge, and retrieves two sodas. She places one on the table beside James’ seat, and returns to her desk. The two are quiet for a minute. Doctor Sharpe takes a drink from her soda.

Doctor Sharpe: “James. I’d like you to give me four words to describe the man who hurt you.”

James: “I told you, I don’t remember what he looks-”

Doctor Sharpe: “This isn’t about looks. Just tell me four words that thinking about him makes you think of.”

James thinks for a moment.

James: “Liar.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Meanie.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Pervert.”

James hesitates for a few seconds.

James: *Quietly* “Asshole.”

Doctor Sharpe nods. James sniffs.

James: “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said a swear.”

Doctor Sharpe: “It’s alright. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been that restrained about it, if it were me.”

James nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “Being gay doesn’t have to make you like him, James. Those are the words that would make you be like him.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Are you an asshole, James?”

A pause. James presses his face in against his knees, mumbles something the camera microphone is unable to pick up, and shakes his head.

Doctor Sharpe: “Then you’re not like him, are you?”

James doesn’t reply.

Doctor Sharpe: “Let’s take a break for a minute, here, okay?”

James nods. Doctor Sharpe stands. Camera shuts off.

Ten minutes later. Camera comes back online. Feed is obstructed by Doctor Sharpe, before she steps away, and returns to her seat. James takes a drink of his coke. He appears significantly calmer.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. How do you really feel about this boy?”

A pause.

James: “Which boy?”

Doctor Sharpe: “The one who made you blush.”

James goes slightly red.

James: “Charlie’s cool.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “I assumed.”

James: “I-”

A pause.

James: “I kinda, um.”

A pause.

James: “I kinda had a dream about him one time.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Oh?”

James: “Yeah. Before, uh. Before the rape.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Was it a good dream?”

James: “It was… Tingly.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “What were you doing in the dream?”

James: “… Stuff.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Any particular kind of stuff?”

James: “… Pass.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, try not to worry about it too much. You’re twelve. It’s called puberty. Having thoughts about boys every now and again doesn’t automatically make you gay.”

James nods.

James: “Right. Thanks.”

Doctor Sharpe: “That being said, even if you were, do you really think it’d make you anything like the man who raped you?”

James: “… No.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. If you did turn out to be gay, would it really be the worst thing in the world?”

A pause. James looks at the floor.

James: “Think I should apologize to Casper?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Only if you mean it.”


Natalie Sharpe returned to her apartment that evening almost haggard. She held a four pack of lager in one hand, a burrito tucked awkwardly under her arm as she fumbled her keys with her free hand. Getting inside took longer than it really should have done.

When she finally got the door open, she immediately dumped her beers on a table along with her keys, and began peeling off her shoes, ignoring, for the moment, the sounds of Apache yowling at her from his bed. It was only after she got the shoes off and took a step forward into the main area that her brain became aware of the smell of cat urine. Less than a second later, she recognized the feeling of something cold soaking into one of her socks. She shifted her tired eyes across the room, and gave Apache a glare of pure, concentrated death.

Apache gazed back at her, unconcerned. After a few moments, he licked his nose, and pulled himself out into a stretch.

“… Fuck you.”

Apache yawned.

Natalie continued to glare at the cat as she drew her burrito out from under her arm, slowly unwrapped it, and took a bite. Then, she trudged off into the tiny laundry room for some cat litter.

Five minutes later, she was feeling a little better. The pee was covered, the sock was slowly soaking clean, and her feet were covered by her favored pair of fluffy rabbit slippers. She was also kicking people’s asses in multiplayer while sprawled upside down on her couch, so that was cool. She hunkered her character down on a lookout post, and took aim for another player’s head.

Maybe the cat wouldn’t have to die for his crimes.

Her phone chimed.

She took her shot, watched her opponent fall, and dug the phone out of her pocket, expecting the next in her and Jack’s ongoing motivational war of post-workout selfies.

When she saw the screen, she groaned.

It was Liz.

‘I’m at the speed dating place. Where are you? You have to at least try this with me!’

Of the small collection of relationships Natalie had managed to maintain from her college days, it was being friends with Liz that most often came back to bite her in the ass. Her old roommate knew far too much about her to leave well enough alone.

She scowled.

‘I already told you I wasn’t going to that thing,’ she sent back. ‘It sounds like genuine hell.’

Off to the side, she heard the telltale click as the front door pushed open, the rubberized bottom brushing over cheap carpeting.

“Hey, Jack,” she called. “No selfie today? I thought you were gonna show me how ripped you are again.”

Her roommate gave her a tired chuckle as he stumbled his way inside, still in the cheap business suit and tie that made up his working clothes.

“Didn’t go,” he muttered. “Too busy at the office. Had to draw up finance plans for the entire upcoming quarter based on half a file of notes and a memo. God, I need a shower.”

Natalie winced in sympathy, then returned her eyes to her phone.

‘It’s a hell that could get you laid, Nat. When was the last time you did that? Or are you still pining over that hot new roommate boy of yours?’

‘… Shut up.’

‘… Want me to tell him what you think of his abs?’

Natalie glanced behind herself at that, tilting her phone to ensure Jack wouldn’t see the message, then swore under her breath at her friend.

‘I swear to God, Liz. I will end you.’

From somewhere behind her, she heard Jack’s phone chime.

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Aid: 5.2

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New Jersey Pine Barrens, James:

James Toranaga was having fun. He was having WAY too much fun.

The nearest of the targets was almost a hundred feet away; the nearest he could see, at any rate. He twisted in the air and shot off after it like an arrow loosed from a bow. The target was fast, but he was faster. He closed to spitting distance in barely more than a second and reached out with his second power, his mind extending through the wind itself to slap the projectile out of the sky. He didn’t pause to watch it fall, regardless of how satisfying that would be, but instead twisted in the air once more, searching for another target.

The pigeons were pretty basic, a bright foam padding around a baseball-like core; softened, in case they hit him. They stood out great against the leafy canopy of the forest far below. He scanned the scenery all around, and let out a groan. Nothing. He’d only managed six.

“Darn it,” he grumbled. “I wanted double digits this time.”

“Good work, Kiddo!” Hideyoshi called from the hilltop on which the launching crew was placed, his voice sounding almost as pumped as James had felt a moment before. “I’m sending up another wave! Go ahead and try it in your other form this time!”

Of the many things that might have put the wind back into James’ sails, that statement was near the top. He grinned.

“Yes sir!” he called, pivoting in midair and snapping his grandfather a playful salute, before tapping once more into his powers, and starting to push his transformation out. Two seconds of effort later, he felt the now only slightly disturbing sensation of his clothes falling through his newly spectral form.

He was so ready for this.

Far below him, his grandfather was directing teams; twenty or so operators manning the machines that would send James’ next set of targets rocketing out above the trees.

“Ready volley,” Hideyoshi called. “On three. Two. One. Pull!” The man brought his hand down, and James watched as the swarm of projectiles was launched high and fast into the sky, flying in a loose, but slowly widening formation. He let out a laugh.

Too easy.

James shot forwards once again, his titan’s arms stretching behind himself like the readied hands of god. He drew close, saw the lights twirling as the wind-lines played themselves in shining ribbons around each of the discs, and brought his colossal hands forward in a single, sharp clap, right at the centre of the swarm. When his palms met, it was with the fury of a storm. He heard the winds crash together, and watched, giddy, as the force of it sent birds to flight from their perches for dozens, if not hundreds of feet around him.

“Best. Day. Ever!”

He took a moment to take a breath of the intoxicatingly fresh forest air, then returned to his grandfather, holding his captured targets clenched in a single wind-formed fist.

“I think I broke a couple of them,” he called as he approached, gingerly lowering the skeet towards Hideyoshi, before dumping them all at his feet. “Foam’s kinda delicate.”

For a few moments, the old man didn’t speak, simply gazing at the mound of shattered discs before him. Then, he began to laugh, loud and gleeful, into the quiet forest air.

“Well, it’s official!” he crowed, putting a hand up to shade his eyes while he scanned the skies for James. “I have the strongest grandson! What was that, ten seconds? There has to be thirty of the things in that pile!”

If James had still had a face in that moment, he’d have been grinning ear to ear.

It had been a two hour drive to get from Manhattan to the testing site; a covered government facility buried in some New Jersey woodland reserve. It had been worth it, though. The air here was fresh, the trees were great, and James was able to stretch his powers out further than he’d ever had a chance to let them go. He felt alive.

“Again,” he begged. “Please. I wanna go again! I wanna hit ALL the things!”

His grandfather rolled his eyes, and gave him a chuckle.

“Okay. One more, but then, we test your flight speed.”

“Yes!” James crowed. “Best grandad! You are the best grandad!”

“Yeah, yeah.” With that, Hideyoshi turned back to the bulk of his work team. “Alright, folks, you heard the demigod. Let’s set up another volley. Teams A and C, skew your angles by fifteen degrees. We don’t want him catching half the swa-”

James lost track of his grandfather’s words beyond that point, already drifting up, high above the hill so as to watch the swarm take flight. At a bellowed word so far below him that he could barely even hear it, the machines loosed. James watched gleefully as his quarry caught the wind, each one of them trailing behind it a hundred sparkling strands of sky thrown into chaos at their passing.

Had he been watching a little closer, he might have seen one of the machines fail to fire, it’s mechanism jammed. He didn’t see this, and so, he swooped forwards, diving in to pursue the swarm in what had to be the most exciting game of his life.

He kept his distance, this time, moving to a level with the formation, then coming to a halt. He’d won with force last time. This time, he’d play the sniper, test how far and true his shots could fly in this rare, unhindered state. He never got the chance to play at full power, and he was going to make the best of it.

He set his gaze on the first of the targets, hanging loose as the formation began to lose cohesion. He extended. Not an arm, this time, but in the same manner he usually did in his human form, with the hand beyond his hand; a single tendril of thin, gently guided force. He could see it now, the imprint of his power in relief amidst the wind-lines. It was almost startling how much easier it made the shot to aim.

James struck, and nearly six hundred feet away, the first of the targets fell, not simply slapped from the sky as before, but severed cleanly in two.

… I didn’t even know I could do that.

He set his sights on a new target and didn’t notice the final launcher firing late, but for the faint cracks as his grandfather tugged its first two projectiles from the sky. Before the man could set his aim on the third, however, the point became abruptly moot. The final disc struck the membrane surrounding what little form James’ body had, and passed through it, an edge grazing just barely against one of the bluish orbs where his ribs should be.

For a moment, James was simply surprised. Watching the discus soar away, trails of what he could only really think of as himself caught in swirling eddies behind it. Then the nausea hit him.

He didn’t notice, at first, that his human body had returned. He was too busy acclimating to what might have been the worst headache in the history of pain; a pulsing in his skull that felt like being squeezed by an iron glove. He only really became aware of the reversion when he vomited, hunching over into a ball in the sky and losing what little food he had recently consumed out over the otherwise perfect forest landscape.

Don’t fall. He told himself, barely coherent as the world around him went loose and fluid as water. Whatever you do, James. You. Do. Not. Fall.

He blacked out.


“So,” Hideyoshi said through a bite of his burger, nearly an hour and a half later. “That windy thing of yours basically turns your body into a giant glowing weak spot. Good to know.”

James gazed glumly at his food. He wasn’t hungry.

Across the table, he heard the older man sigh.

“Let me guess. You’re bummed out because you were having a good time before it all went sideways, right?”

James folded his arms, and gave a sullen nod.

“Then I’ll ask you the same thing I asked your dad the first time he got himself hurt snowboarding: Do you never want to do the cool thing again? Are you giving up?”

“… No.”

“Then shape up,” Hideyoshi rumbled. “If you still want to try again, then it can’t be bad enough to get all mopey about, can it?”

James scowled, tried to think up a counter argument, failed, and settled for flicking one of his chips at him. He missed.

“That’s the spirit,” Hideyoshi murmured, chuckling.

In the silence that followed, James’ milkshake arrived. Strawberry. His favorite. He took a sip, and found it a good deal easier on his stomach than the burger. He drank more. It was hard, being sullen with a milkshake. He found his mood improving, whether he wanted it to or not.

As they resumed their overlong journey home, James found himself cheered up enough to converse, and the two of them whiled away the time on gentler things: Cartoons and school, for the most part, interspersed with a few tales from his grandfather’s youth; a number of which, to James’ surprise, seemed to have taken place during the late Momoyama period. Eventually, however, James mustered up the nerve to turn the conversation elsewhere.

“Jiji?” he asked when they were only half an hour or so from home. “If I showed you a spell I’d found, could you tell me what it did?”

Hideyoshi gave his grandson an odd look, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“You mean another power?” he asked. “Because if you’ve got even more you haven’t shown me after only a month or so of without even any real training, that’s pretty damn impres-”

“No,” James murmured, cutting the old man off. “Not that kind of spell. I mean, like, one with instructions and ingredients and stuff.”

“You mean a ritual?” asked Hideyoshi, a touch amused. “James, you know the magic books at school aren’t real, rig-”

“No,” he replied, his voice firm. “Jiji, I’m serious. I’ve got it written down. Can you take a look for me?”

Hideyoshi hesitated at that, perhaps unsure of what to say, before something in the way the boy had spoken seemed to sway him.

“Sure. Just let me find a place to park.”

The next few minutes were more than a little weird inside the car. James dug out his phone while the older man pulled the car down a side street, and set about pulling up the instructions that Caleb had given him, trying to ignore the way his grandfather kept looking at him; the occasional furtive glance out of the corner of his eye. It was a necessary discomfort, though. There was no way he’d let Caleb use a spell on him until he was sure it was what he claimed. That was why he’d gotten the instructions from him in the first place.

When the car finally slowed to a halt, James handed his grandfather the phone without a word, and waited for the verdict. He tried not to look worried while the older man tracked his eyes slowly across the screen. After a few seconds, the silence abruptly broke.

“It’s no good,” Hideyoshi muttered. “The screen’s too small. I can’t read the damn thing.”

James rolled his eyes, and leaned across the divide to enlarge the view.

Again, the inside of the car was quiet. James folded his arms.

“… James,” Hideyoshi murmured a minute or so later, speaking with the controlled calm of a man asking where a child had found a gun. “Can you tell me where in the hell you got ahold of this?”

James made an effort to look the older man in the eye as he gave his answer, regardless of how out of place it felt.

“There’s a boy I know who says he needs my help,” he said, his tone as clear and calm as he could make it. “Wants my energy so he can get away from the people who’re making him a slave. I wanted to check it with someone I could trust.”

For a long moment, Hideyoshi didn’t speak, simply gazing at his grandson, his lips parted in a silent ‘oh’.

James held his gaze as long as he could, before turning his eyes to the floor, self-conscious.

After another moment or two, he gave up waiting for the older man to speak.

“Something up?” he asked, still staring at his feet.

“No,” Hideyoshi replied eventually. “Just… Adjusting. It sounds like my grandson might be more connected to New York’s criminal underground than I am. It’s not something you expect to hear from a twelve year old.”

“… Are you gonna tell me it’s dangerous?” James asked. “That I’m in way over my head? That I could get-”

“No,” his grandfather cut him off. “I’m not.” James looked up at him at that, and saw the man gazing right back at him, his expression carefully neutral. “If I wanted to get in your way, I’d have told your dad about those misadventures with Tasha, or getting in a fight with a trafficking ring. You’re a Toranaga, and that means you’re a soldier. I expect you to know the dangers well enough on your own.” Hideyoshi sniffed, then continued.

“But, if I ever have to save you,” he rumbled. “It means you’re done. You can ask me for help, or advice, or anything you want; but if you drop yourself in trouble you don’t know how to solve, then the moment I save you, I’m marching you home and telling your dad everything I know. You’ll go back to being my grandson, and I won’t trust you with yourself like that again.”

“… Wow,” James mumbled, unsure what in the world there even was to say to that. “Um… You uh… You do know I’m just trying to help a friend of mine get away, right? I’m not trying to be Batman or anything.”

Across from him, Hideyoshi closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Oh,” he muttered tiredly. “Thank Christ above for that.”

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Aid: 5.1

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James:

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

At first, James’ only response was to laugh. The statement was just too silly; more like something out of a morning cartoon script than real life. He snorted, then shook his head, and turned his gaze to Caleb… only to see that the other boy wasn’t laughing. He felt something cold settle in his stomach.

“… You’re serious,” he murmured, the words coming out faint, half-shocked.

“I wouldn’t joke about this.” Caleb replied, his voice deeply tired. “I… Look. No offence. You’re a cool kid, and I honestly kinda like hanging out with you, but… God damn it.” He brought a hand up against his forehead, and let out a groan. “It was the only way for me to escape, okay?”

In response, James simply stared. The other boy’s explanation, far from adding clarity, had only added another layer of confusion. Caleb peeked out from under his hand, saw James’ expression, and shook his head.

“Okay, look. In the simplest terms, I’m a slave, alright?”

“… You’re a what?”

“A slave,” Caleb repeated, his tone bitter. “I’m not gonna say it again. It’s not a fun thing to admit. My masters bred me and the others like me to hunt monsters. They wanted a hunting dog that was smart enough to do most of the work on its own without too much oversight; so, about thirty years ago, they started collecting half-breeds. People with a little bit of werewolf, or vampire, or whatever else, and began trying to get the right mix for a really good hunter. That’s why I’ve got a bunch of tiny powers instead of one big one.”

Caleb stopped there for a moment, and turned his gaze skywards, apparently waiting for James to comment. For his part, however, James had no idea what to say. This was… Too much of a curveball. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, before finally managing a quiet:

“Um…”

Caleb let out a single dark chuckle at that.

“Yeah. Pretty fucked up.” The boy fell silent then, returning his gaze to the stars while James muddled it all through inside his head. He was too tired for this.

“… Can’t you just, you know, run away?” he asked.

“I could,” Caleb agreed. “And I’d make it maybe four hours before they killed me. They put sort of a…” he stopped for a moment, seemingly in thought, then shrugged. “Meh, I might as well just show you. It’s easier than explaining, you know?”

James did not know. The other boy had thus far left him utterly confused; a feeling that redoubled when, without any further warning, Caleb shrugged off his jacket, and started peeling his shirt up away from his chest. James had a moment to glimpse a surprisingly developed set of muscles being revealed beneath the hem, before he turned away, his cheeks very red.

“… Are you gonna look or not?” Caleb asked, the faintest hint of annoyance running momentarily through his voice. “It’s cold out here.”

James hesitated for a long moment, before turning to look. Caleb had his back to him now, one hand pointing to the patch of skin just below his neck.

It was a tattoo, James thought; a series of flowing lines and oddly shaped symbols stitching themselves together into a circle between the boy’s shoulder blades, etched in black against the skin. James wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but in the evening gloom, he thought he might have caught it glowing.

“They give us these brands on the day they start teaching us magic,” Caleb muttered. “It lets them drain the magic out of us when they want to. It’s way harder to prep an escape if you only have enough for a spell or two every day.” He turned to look at James, and began to pull his shirt back on.

“But that’s not the bad part. See, if you start to disobey, or they start to think you’ve run away, then they just keep draining you till it kills you. There’s no running away from it.”

“… And killing me was supposed to help with that?” James asked, his confusion finally finding something concrete to latch onto, and allowing the betrayal to finally register inside his mind.

“… No,” Caleb admitted sourly. “I was gonna use you to get myself free, but that wasn’t the part that was gonna kill you. I’ve been sort of scavenging little bits and pieces around the place that could maybe help me get myself out of this.” At that, he pushed off from the ledge, allowing his body to slide down the incline into the skating pit. He trudged towards the basketball, and gave it a kick.

“It was small stuff,” he murmured. “Ingredients for spells that no one would miss, recipes for rituals that could maybe help me get away clean. I picked one up about a year ago that was supposed to let me pull the magic out of someone for a while, maybe supercharge myself enough to overload my brand and run. And then I found you; a kid who was so powerful it might even be enough to let me free two people. I got greedy.”

James gazed down at the other boy, unsure of what to feel. A part of him still wanted to be furious. Another part of him was angry at himself for that. He shook his head.

“Who are they?” he asked. “This other person you wanted to save?”

“… She’s called Twenty Three,” Caleb muttered. “They don’t really give us names. She’s my… I dunno. My partner, I guess.”

James tactfully ignored the faint trace of red dusting the other boy’s cheeks at that.

“So, why do you have a name, then?”

“I don’t,” Caleb grunted. “I’m a number too. I chose Caleb.”

“What num-”

“Don’t,” Caleb cut him off. “Please, just. Just let me be Caleb, okay? I’d like to have just one person who didn’t think of me as a number.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb folded his arms, then gave him a nod.

“So,” he continued. “That ritual. I was gonna call you out for training, set it up, and snare you. Then, while you were weakened, I was gonna knock you out and call my masters to tell them I captured an extremely potent cross-breed.”

“… The heck?” James asked, something akin to rage rekindling itself inside his gut. “Who does that, Ca-”

“I told you I was planning to kill you,” Caleb interjected tonelessly. “Handing you over to them would have meant they’d take you to their main facility to get you branded. Then, all I’d have to do is tell your family where you were, and that you’d been kidnapped by my boss, and suddenly my masters would be too busy dealing with a family of angry mega mages to notice me and my partner escaping. You either die in the crossfire, or get killed because my master would rather kill you than let you get away. I make it out clean, and spend the rest of my life trying not to think about the kid I killed.” He took a deep breath, and turned his eyes to the stars.

“But then that friend of yours fucked it all up.”

“You were going to use my family as a weapon?!” James asked, incensed.

“Yes,” Caleb replied, his tone deeply bitter. “I was. But then you go and you start talking to that Tasha girl about your family and she hands you off to talk to some dude she lives with, and you call him your grandpa. So, suddenly, if I ever actually DO try and kidnap you, the first thing she’ll do is tell your grandad about this guy you’ve been hanging out with who she totally doesn’t trust. Suddenly, your family won’t be going after my master at all. Suddenly, they’ll be going after me. All that work, for fucking noth-”

The wind blast hit Caleb in the side, slamming his shoulder against the concrete wall of the pit with the force of a small car. There was a loud crack, and he let out a yelp of surprise and pain. He turned back to look at James, and got halfway through a curse word, before the second one struck him in the nose.

A part of James wondered why the other boy hadn’t bothered trying to dodge. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He struck again, and Caleb fell to his knees. He struck again.

He wanted to shout. He wanted to scream. If he could have thought of the words, then perhaps he would have done so. As it was, however, James kept silent as he beat his former friend. Five, ten, fifteen blows. He kept going until the rage that filled him had burned itself down to merely a slight tremor running through his fingers, before finally, he spoke, his voice quiet.

“You don’t use my family like that, Caleb.”

The bloodied boy took a few moments to push himself upright, then gazed at James, his expression cold.

“I wasn’t asking you to forgive me,” he muttered, pausing briefly to wipe the blood from his lip with a sleeve. “I just wanted you to know. Try and have someone in the world who knows that I’m a pers-”

“Shut up,” James muttered. “I don’t care what you want. I wish I could, but I don’t. Just-” he hesitated for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “… Just tell me about this ritual. Will it let me get my power back after?”

“… What?” Caleb asked, one eye going wide in shock, the other swollen closed where it had struck against the concrete.

James rolled his eyes.

“I mean, obviously, I’m gonna need to know how this thing works if we’re gonna figure out how to get you and your partner free, aren’t I?”

For a long time, Caleb simply gazed at him, his mouth hanging ever so slightly open as fresh blood oozed towards his chin.

“You…” he mumbled. “You mean you’re just gonna let me drain you?”

James gazed stonily at the older boy for a moment, then let out a sigh.

“Caleb,” he murmured.

“Yeah?”

“You’re an idiot.”

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Dissonance: 4.12

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Author’s Note: Well, this one should be interesting. Sorry it took so long. So. First up, here’s a link to the bonus chapter vote for this arc, and secondly, an awesome dude called Sharkerbob has done a dramatic read-through of one of my chapters. Both of those things are cool, especially Sharker. So, moving on, let’s do the chapter.

James:

“I don’t get why I have to meet them, though,” Casper grumbled, following grudgingly along in the other boy’s wake. James rolled his eyes.

“Cuz you need more friends, Casper,” he replied shortly, lowering his voice a little as they approached the table. “Just me isn’t enough. Besides, I’m tired of having to choose between you and them every day.” At that, he raised his voice again. “Hey, guys! This is Casper. He’s a doof. Can we friend him?”

The table was mostly empty today, most of the group having likely set off once again for a game. Charlie was there, though, along with Nailah. At James’ call, the two of them glanced up from the array of monster cards scattered across the tabletop. Charlie’s freckle dusted face split into a grin.

“Hey, James!” he called. “Hey, Casper. Give us like, two seconds, okay? I’m so close to a win here.”

Nailah snorted at that.

“Nope,” she murmured back, laying down a fresh card. “I cast ‘Barrel of Explodium’. That’s you out of life points. Again.”

“What? No,” Charlie protested. “That’s six damage. I had seven left. I know I did!”

James chuckled at that, tugging Casper in behind him as he sat.

“Don’t argue maths with Nai; she’ll just make you lose harder.”

Charlie shot him a scowl. He countered with the most innocent smile he could manage. Beside him, Casper sat down on the bench, frowning, eyes on the table.

James sighed, and prodded the older boy in the ribs.

“Oi. No clamming up for you.” When Casper didn’t respond, he turned his gaze to the others. “Casper runs a light deck. Keeps trying to beat me with just human soldiers and enchantments.”

“Well that’s lame,” Charlie replied, picking up James’ lead and thankfully running with it. “Humans are like, one/one monsters across the board, right? How can you win without any decent champions?”

For a few moments, the words hung dead in the air, Casper still frowning quietly down at the tabletop. James had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Nailah had just opened her mouth to speak, when Casper replied, his voice small.

“Didn’t you just try and beat fire with a forest deck?”

The words earned him a smile from Nailah, and a playful glare from Charlie.

“Hey,” he shot back. “Don’t you go dissing my green deck. I’ll take the whole world on with nothing but bunnies and tiger spells.”

“Say that after you beat me, kay?” Nailah countered. “My fire shall reign forever.”

“… I totally need to bring my deck sometime,” Casper murmured, giving the girl a small smile. “My humans will destroy you.”

“Foolish mortal,” Charlie countered as he gathered up his cards. “It takes more than mere men to counter the gods.” He gave James a nudge on the shoulder. “You bring your deck today?”

“Nope.” James shrugged. “I had some other stuff going on. Got kinda distracted. Sorry.”

“Wanna play with mine?” Charlie held up his freshly collected deck. “See if you can beat the fire queen?”

“Uh, sure.” James took the proffered deck, and shuffled around the table to sit across from Nailah. Charlie shifted a little to give him some room, then, out of nowhere, grabbed him by the shoulder, and gave him a noogie, ignoring both his outrage and his protests.

“You can do this, squire. I believe in you.”

“Hah!” Nailah cackled, apparently getting rather into her fire queen bit. “You expect me lose to the likes of him? He is but a child with a borrowed deck!”

James didn’t answer immediately, he was too busy fixing his hair. He shot Charlie a glare, and the taller boy smiled back, sunny as ever. He slung an arm around James’ shoulders, and leaned in to murmur a loud stage whisper into his ear.

“She is weak, young padawan. Her fire runs only on stolen power. You can unseat her, child. It is your destiny.”

James took a moment to respond to that. He wanted to be annoyed at the taller boy for messing up his hair, but it was hard. He found himself distracted for a moment by the weight of the arm over his shoulders, his attention somehow drawn to how close Charlie’s lips were to his ear. He felt his cheeks grow a little warm.

Nope.

He wrenched his mind away from that particular line of thought with all the force he could muster, and shook himself.

“Not a child,” he grumbled, managing a decent approximation of irritation as he ducked out from under the other boy’s arm. “I’m a grown up now. My dad even let me say the F word.”

“He let you say fuck?” Casper asked, grinning. “Wow, such a cool dad.”

“Yeah,” Nailah murmured, shooting him a wink. “I wish my dad let me say fuck. That’d be so ace.”

“… Shut up.”

“I guess I’ll have to stick with good ol’ Gee Willikers,” Casper continued. “Cuz I’m just not a real grown up yet.”

James glowered at him.

“Come on, guys,” Charlie cut in, his tone placating. “Don’t be mean. Saying the F word is very grown up.” James had just enough time to feel grateful, before the boy added a follow up. “I’m sure he’d be happy to demonstrate for us, too. Go on, James.”

“… What?” James looked into the other boy’s face at that, ready to protest. Charlie’s eyes were very blue under the auburn of his hair. He looked away.

“Swear,” Charlie murmured, humor teasing at the edges of his tone. “Say fuck, since you’re such a cool adult and all.”

“… I was only s’posed to say it once,” he muttered, glaring at his legs.

“Such an adult.”

“I hate all of you.”


The rest of the day passed largely uneventfully. James played cards with his friends, debated TV shows with Casper, and went to class. It was soothing, to an extent. Everything felt right again. All things in their place. He went home, did his homework, and played with Bex while Casper worked in the kitchen. When dinner came, he was honestly surprised. Turned out the other kid really knew how to cook. It was some kind of pasta, and it was delicious.

The only hiccup came when he and Casper moved to his room that evening, deciding to watch more shows while the other boy caught up on his school work.

He was sitting on the floor, muddling through an overlarge case of DVDs, when the other boy spoke, his voice quiet.

“So, Charlie’s kinda cool.”

James smiled to himself at that, still flicking through page after page of discs.

“I know, right?” he murmured. “It’s super cool you two are friends now. We do choir practice together, and he sings really we-”

“He’s cute, too,” Casper continued, his tone casual. “Don’t you think?”

James froze for a moment at that, his hands halting midway through tugging the right disc from its sleeve. It took his mind a few moments to wind back into motion.

“… What was that?” He glanced back at Casper. The boy was gazing at him, his expression calm.

“Charlie,” Casper repeated. “You think he’s cute.”

“… No I don’t,” James muttered, returning his gaze to the discs. “Don’t be dumb.”

“I’m not being dumb,” the other boy replied. “Empath, remember? Why’d you go all weird when he got close to you? Cuz it felt a like you were having sexy thou-”

“Can you not?” James asked, his voice caught between pleading and irritation. “Please? I felt weird for a couple seconds, that’s all. You don’t need to put any other stuff into it.” He pressed the button to open up the DVD player, and let out a huff. “… This is why being friends with you is weird. I never get to just deal with stuff on my own.”

For a few seconds, Casper didn’t respond. A part of James wondered if he’d hurt the other boy. He refused to look at him. When the older boy finally spoke, his voice was quiet.

“… You know there’s nothing wrong with liking boys, right?”

James let out an aggravated grunt at that.

“Of course I do,” he snapped. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t. Like. Boys.” He put as much emphasis as he could into the last few words, then shot his friend a scowl. Casper was still just sitting there, utterly calm. “Even if I did, I don’t want to deal with all the sexy stuff right now. It’s gross!”

For a few minutes, the two of them were quiet. James was angry. He wasn’t even all that sure why. He just knew that Casper was making him angry, with those stupid calm words and that stupid calm face. He glared at it.

After a long while, Casper sighed.

“Empathy sucks sometimes, you know?”

James didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned on the TV, and finished setting up the show. He got up, plopped himself down on the furthest edge of the bed from Casper that he could, and set his eyes to the screen, not really seeing it. Neither of them spoke.

He was still angry when, ten minutes later, his phone rang. He picked it up without bothering to look at the screen, and pressed it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Caleb.”

For the briefest moment, James felt a tiny flicker of relief undercut his rage. He’d been worried for a while there that Caleb might not want to speak to him.

“Hey,” he murmured, ignoring the way Casper’s gaze shifted across to him. “You uh… You doing okay?”

At the other end of the line, Caleb let out a tired laugh.

“No. Not really. I uh. I was hoping you could maybe come see me? I… Kinda wanted to explain some stuff.”

“Sure,” James replied, perplexed. “You got a time ready to do a meet up or-”

“I’m at the park near your place,” Caleb cut him off. “The one with the skateboards. Can you meet me? It’s kind of important.”

For a moment, James considered saying no. His parents were home. It was already getting dark. Then he glanced at Casper, felt another twinge of anger.

“Sure. Just give me a couple minutes. Kay?” He didn’t wait for a response before he hung up. He dropped the phone in his pocket, and stood up. The basketball sat in the far corner of the room, and he extended a hand, his power reaching out along with it to grasp the air inside the sphere. The practice bouts had helped a lot with his control, and now, the ball flew straight as he pulled it towards his hand, its movement quick, but steady.

“I’m going out,” he muttered behind himself. “I have some stuff to do.”

“… Stuff we’re allowed to talk about?” Casper asked, his tone a tad concerned.

“No,” James replied shortly. “Other stuff.”


It wasn’t too hard for James to get his parents to let him outside. They might be a little restrictive, but it was still early enough in the evening, and they knew he could defend himself. He promised to be back in an hour, and stepped outside, the ball tucked under an arm.

One short walk later, he found Caleb at the park, sitting alone on the lip of the skate rink. Without a word, he walked over, and sat himself alongside him.

Caleb didn’t look too good. There were shadows under his eyes, a trace of blood and dust still clinging to his clothes from yesterday’s fight. James didn’t ask about the fresher blood on his knuckles, nor the dried tears across his cheeks.

“… What’s up?” he asked, turning his gaze down into the skating pit. He absently tossed the basketball down into it, and watched the thing as it bounced.

“… I’ve been lying to you,” came the response, Caleb, like himself, opting to just watch the ball as it moved. “Wanted to say sorry I’m a shitty friend.”

James wanted to say the words were surprising, but they weren’t. He wasn’t an idiot.

“You mean you’re not a teenage monster hunter?” he asked, his voice deadpan.

Caleb chuckled.

“Actually, that’s the only thing I told you that was true. It’s the rest that was all BS. I am a monster hunter, but I wasn’t trying to train you.” James chanced a glance at the older boy. Caleb was still just watching the ball, his hands clasping together in his lap, still gently dripping blood. He returned his gaze to the ball, and gave it a little push with his wind to keep it bouncing.

“… What were you trying to do, then?”

At that, Caleb allowed himself another short chuckle, and closed his eyes.

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

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Dissonance: 4.11

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys. So, I made a discord, just in case any of you wanted to sorta see what I’m like and have a chat. Might not be anyone’s kind of thing, might be kinda cool. So, yeah. I’ll leave the link here.

Kay. On with the chapter.

James:

“Yeah,” James replied, unsure of what else there really was to say. “Yeah. I guess I’m a mage, now.”

“… Right.”

“… Yup.”

For a long while, neither spoke. Whatever awkward feeling there had been in the air before was growing faster now, building more and more in the silence with every other moment. Then, after more than a minute of that ever deepening quiet, Peter clapped his hands together.

“Well,” he said, injecting into his voice what had to be the most forced note of cheer that James had ever heard. “Good talk. I’ll uh. I’ll get out of your hair.”

“… Kay,” James murmured, not quite managing to hold his father’s gaze. “Love you, Dad.”

James thought he heard a touch of sadness in his father’s tone as the older man replied:

“Love you too, Kiddo.”

At that, Peter pulled the door behind him open and stepped outside, before swinging it closed again. James didn’t look up as the man took his leave. He sighed.

It was like that sometimes, between him and his dad. They talked fine when there was nothing much to talk about, and his dad was just really to the point when there was something serious going on; but at other times, when there was stuff just going along unsaid…

James sighed again, and let himself fall back atop his bed, staring at the ceiling.

“I really wanted to talk to you about this, da-”

There was another noise as the door once again swung open, before slamming closed a little harder than it needed to.

“Okay, no,” Peter began, his tone firm. “No. We need to have a talk, and I’m not leaving here till we have it. James, why didn’t you tell your mother and I that you had powers?”

“I did,” James protested quietly, caught for a moment between surprise and relief. “I only found out about Jiji in the first place cuz I was looking for ways to tell you.”

“Yeah,” Peter replied, stepping forwards across the space between them and plomping down beside his son. “But that photo that caught you happened two weeks ago. Why didn’t you tell us before now, huh?” As he spoke, he reached down and placed a hand on James’ shoulder.

“Because I was scared you’d freak out,” he muttered back, turning his head against the mattress to look his father in the eye. “I mean, you can’t exactly just walk into your parents’ bedroom and say ‘Hey, Mom, hey, Dad. I had a dream about the rape last night and when I woke up I was flying’, can you?”

“… No, you’re right,” Peter sighed, giving James’ shoulder a little pat, before lowering himself down alongside him. James shifted across an inch or so to give his dad some room. “I guess you can’t just say that; but jeez, Kiddo.” James felt an arm worm its way underneath him to wrap his shoulders in a loose hug. “It really took you two whole weeks to muscle up and tell us?”

James thought back for a moment to what had happened before Central Park. The fight, the escape, the gun, and decided he agreed with Hideyoshi. There were some things his parents just didn’t need to know. In the end, he merely shrugged, shuffling over on the bed to rest his head against his father’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It took me a while. But it was a big thing to try and tell you. Why didn’t you guys tell me I was magic in the first place?”

At that, James heard his father sigh.

“Yeah. That would have been harder for us to do than it sounds like. The way powers work, you kinda need to be put under a lot of stress to unlock them, and that stress is harder for you to achieve if you have a little voice in the back of your head saying ‘It’s okay, my magic’ll turn up and save me soon.’”

“So, what,” James twisted around a little to look his dad in the eye. “The more you told me, the less chance it’d really happen?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” James felt his head shift a little as his father shrugged. “It’s a tough problem. That’s why you get so many parents who try and force their kids to manifest. Just beat the crap out of them until they think they’re gonna die, then stop when it happens and apologize like hell in the aftermath.” Peter let out a long, bitter sigh. “Fucking disgusting.”

“Hey,” James muttered, lifting a hand to prod his father in the side. “No swearing.”

“What?” the older man asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

“You said a bad word.” James gave his dad a scowl.

Peter raised an eyebrow at that, then let out a dry chuckle.

“Some people are bad enough to deserve that word.” James narrowed his eyes, unconvinced, before his father shot him a grin. “… You wanna try it?”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me.” Peter laughed. “The F word. Wanna try it? I promise not to tell your mom.”

“… Really?”

“Yeah.” His father gave him a wink. “Just this once. Throw a bad word at the people who abuse their kids. Just remember. I get to be the cool dad, now.”

James thought about it long and hard. This was a big step. A big step on a journey he hadn’t even realized he’d been taking. Was he really about to do this? Was he ready to take this plunge?

“… fuck.”

The word came out a little smaller than intended; quiet, as if its very utterance was accompanied by an unspoken apology. It had still happened, though, whatever the flaws. James took a breath. He felt taller.

“Good job, kid.” His father gave his shoulders another squeeze, before pulling himself upright. “Well. I dunno about you, but I’m all tapped out of difficult conversation energy. Let’s do the rest another time.”

“… Yeah.”

Peter began to walk away at that, before stopping as he pulled the door ajar.

“I feel kinda lighter now,” he murmured, his tone deeply tired. “Do you feel any lighter, James?”

James turned his gaze to the ceiling, and smiled.

“Yeah. Just a little.”


Western Manhattan, 2:14 AM:

The man in the shadows didn’t even try to dodge as Lewis swung the blade towards him, simply letting it strike off the curve of his jawbone, the edge now slightly nicked. His shield didn’t flicker. He barely even flinched.

It didn’t matter. Lewis was already running.

“You’re running out of chances to do this amicably, tracker,” came the voice from behind him as he fled, sounding faintly annoyed now. Lewis swore behind himself as he made his retreat, relying on his natural speed, enhanced by whatever gifts his mother’s genes had left him, to gain some distance on the stranger.

Once that was achieved, Lewis kept running. For seconds, at first. Then minutes. Then nearly an hour. He kept going long after the man’s charcoal tinted scent had left his nose, only stopping when his winding path finally led him to the water at the island’s edge. Then, panting heavily, he found a road, and hailed himself a taxi.

He directed the perplexed driver to the opposite edge of the city, then got out, and went to find a subway. Whoever that wizard had been, he was powerful. Lewis had to give the guy the slip before he even considered going back to the kids. He sighed. It was going to take him hours to do this right. He had work in the morning.

Lewis found himself a subway station, and hopped aboard a random train, blending in as best he could amongst the mixed assortment of night folk that moved throughout the city that never slept. He found a chair, and allowed himself to fall into something of a doze.

He was exhausted. The last of the adrenaline had burned its way through his system in his journey in the taxi-cab, and his day before had hardly been uneventful. He tugged out his phone, set an alarm for four AM, and let himself fade out in the faintly musty train car.


He awoke to the familiar piano riff, and the sensation of the ground moving against the wheels far below. His head hurt. His mind ached. Half an hour wasn’t nearly enough to call a sleep. It was barely even a breather. But at least he could see a little clearer now.

Lewis pulled himself upright at the next station, and trudged out into the nearly empty terminal. He turned his coat up in preparation for the nightly cold, and stepped towards the map along the wall. He had to figure out how to get home. He barely noticed the woman following him. The one who smelled of sandalwood.

He climbed the steps out into the street, and took a left. It was going to be a long walk ho-

A scent. Charcoal.

Fuck.

Lewis turned mid-stride in the empty street, and began to run, only to find his path blocked by a woman who hadn’t been there a second ago.

The smell of sandalwood again.

He swore, then pulled his fist back, and struck her. She didn’t move. He thought something might have broken in his hand.

He had no time to check, however, as before he had a chance to move, something vast and strong scooped him off the ground, and tossed him, like a ragdoll, all the way across the street. He landed in a sprawl in an alleyway, and thought he tasted blood.

“Who the fuck are you people?” he asked, turning his face in the direction of his pursuers, only to find that there was no one there. The smell of charcoal was stronger now.

“The time to ask that, Mr. Themps,” spoke that same disgruntled voice from earlier. “Was before you tried to run away from me. I’m a very reasonable man.”

“You’re a son of a bitch is what you are,” Lewis growled, pulling himself to his feet, and turning to face the man, once more concealed among the shadows. “Whatever the hell you want from me, you can shove it up your ass!”

What happened next confused Lewis. He felt the strike against his gut. He knew that for certain; powerful enough to send him to his knees, something viscous pouring from his mouth. Why was there no pain to it? Surely, there should be pain by now.

For a moment, he considered just staying on the ground. It seemed a little easier than standing up to face these people. Unfortunately, it was not to him to make that choice. He felt something take him by the chin, and then there was no ground beneath his form. He couldn’t think; could barely see. The smell of charcoal and sandalwood; that ever fragrant sandalwood; growing stronger and stronger in his mind.

“Now. If you’re done trying to make a statement,” the voice murmured. “Perhaps we can get on with things in the civilized manner that I’d intended.” Lewis gave no response to that, so the voice continued. “We’re going to make you an offer, Mr. Themps, and I’m afraid we’re in too much of a rush to be letting you say no right now.”

Lewis opened his mouth to swear, but felt something leaden press against his tongue. He gagged.

“I really wouldn’t, Mr. Themps. My partner and I are in a bad mood. The deal is quite straightforward. We want you to find someone for us. One man. In exchange, for the first and perhaps only time in our long lives, we are willing to let you name your price. Be it money, or protection, or a better quality of life for those two teens you care for. We are in a hurry, Mr. Themps. Think quickly.”

A moment later, Lewis felt that leaden weight ease itself off his tongue. He could speak. He could fight. This man still had him by the chin.

“… And If I say no?” he asked.

There was a sigh, before another voice spoke, a woman this time. Sandalwood.

“I’m afraid this means a lot to us,” she said. “Refusing would be the last thing your tongue ever did.”

Lewis took a breath, and closed his eyes. That hadn’t been a threat. It was a promise. Her tone had been too flat to be a bluff.

“… Who do you want me to find,” he asked, hating himself just a little for the words. “… I want to know the job before I choose if it’s worth my tongue.”

There was movement then, and he felt the ground once more beneath his feet. The thing around his chin released its grip, and he felt himself collapsing back against the alleyway wall. Not long after that, the world faded back into view before his eyes, a little blurry. His two aggressors stood there above him, quite composed. The man had a fleck of his blood across one cheek.

Sandalwood raised a hand towards a pocket of her coat and produced a zip-lock bag with what looked to be a swath of fabric stowed inside. She tossed it down to him.

“Give it a smell,” she instructed.

For a moment, he debated again what a tongue was worth. Then he took the bag, and reluctantly pried it open.

The thing inside was potent. It reeked. The stink of soap and fear and sweat, and the all too recognizable smell of sex.

The old man caught Lewis’ eye as he knelt down, before pulling the undersized shirt out of the bag, and holding it up.

“Mr. Themps,” Hideyoshi murmured, his eyes hard. “We will give you anything you want, if you find the man who raped our grandson.”

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