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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Catharsis: 2.11

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Tasha:

Her captor had deposited her in a chair, her body slumped uncomfortably against the rigid wooden frame, before taking his leave, abandoning her to these three perverts. Tasha recognized each of them. The woman with the force breath was talking in a low voice to the guy with the broken hand while the man with the gun busied himself doing something behind her back.

“Why are you doing that?” the younger man asked. “It’s not like she can move and when that drug wears off, it’s not like a few cable ties will hold her.”

“They’re not supposed to hold her down,” the larger man grunted from behind Tasha, making her wish she had enough control to at least look at him so she could see how she was being tied. “They’re just supposed to make a noise if she breaks out of them. I’m keeping watch, and if I get distracted by something, these should stop her getting the drop on me. I hear a peep out of her, I shoot her.”

The force breath woman nodded.

“Makes sense,” she murmured, stepping forwards to peer into Tasha’s eyes. “Can she hear us?”

“Should do,” the broken handed one replied with a shrug. “Lewis said the drug just paralyzed. She’s perfectly aware.”

“Good,” the woman said. Without warning, she brought her hand sideways in a wide sweep, striking Tasha across the jaw. Numb as she was, she didn’t even feel it. Did they not realize her nerves just weren’t working? That being said, the strike disoriented, throwing her mind out of order for a moment. It made her angry. Very, very angry. The woman stood straight again, massaging her fingers with her other hand. “Might as well get some work in while we wait for it to wear off.”

“Yeah,” broken hand agreed. “Best if the punishment’s done with before she’s able to scream. I don’t want the kids having to listen to that.”

“Good call,” force breath nodded. “Where’d you put her bat, Samson?”

“Careful,” the older man replied, standing from his position behind her and moving to lean against the wall beside a window with its curtains drawn, a hand drifting under his jacket to unholster his gun and holding it casually pointed towards the floor. “If you hurt her too much, Father won’t be able to heal her. You’ll be in trouble, then.”

“Yeah yeah,” she replied. “Stop your fussing. I know when to stop. So, where is it?”

Samson shrugged, jerking a thumb towards some point behind Tasha.

“Storage closet. End of the hall.”

The woman took her leave and the two men waited in silence, both simply gazing at Tasha coolly. She tried to move again, but failed. This was hell. This was absolutely hell.


Casper:

Lewis led him out of the building, taking a left down the street, apparently headed towards the nearby subway terminal.

“So,” he murmured evenly. “I’m betting you have questions, so go ahead. Hit me.”

Casper shrugged. As much as he hated to admit it, he’d done all he could for Tasha at the moment. He may as well make use of the chance to learn some things.

“Well,” he said. “Big one first, I guess. Why doesn’t the whole world know about us?”

Lewis laughed as though he’d said something deeply funny.

“Truth is, they used to,” he replied. “Back before science got big and all the governments had so much control. The world used to be full of monsters and wizards and all sorts of stuff in between.” He paused for a moment, glancing back at Casper, who nodded, more to show his interest than anything else. “But that stopped being a thing over time. It used to be that the mages and monster hunters barely managed to keep all the bad stuff away, but then we started learning and inventing useful stuff, like guns, and suddenly the monsters weren’t so hard to fight any more. We started managing to keep them back a bit better, so the people being kept safe eventually stopped believing all the stories about monsters and magic and all the rest of it. Truth is, most of the governments active at the time liked that people were starting to forget. Less people knowing about magic and stuff means less people trying to mess with something powerful and getting everyone around them in trouble. So, most of them started trying to help everyone ignore it all.”

“So there really is a cover up?” Casper asked, uncertain.

“Only sort of,” Lewis grunted. “You get punished for telling normal people without a good reason, sure, but it’s usually a slap on the wrist, basically the same as a parking ticket, really.”

Casper considered this as Lewis led him down a set of stairs and into the crowded subway terminal, a small part of him wondering where he was being taken, the rest focused elsewhere.

“… I don’t get it,” he admitted eventually. “If it’s just a slap on the wrist, then why don’t we have superheroes turning up all over the place? People finding out they have powers and putting on costumes to go fight crime.”

“Well,” Lewis replied after a moment. “A couple things there. First, sometimes, that does happen. First gens like you getting ice breath or whatever and figuring they’re the chosen ones. They don’t usually last long. The moment they do anything big enough to get noticed, the government figures out where they are, someone way better at using powers brings them in  and everything gets made to look like a really well done hoax. A youtube video becomes a really cool CGI short film, a photo becomes part of an online scavenger hunt. It’s pretty easy to do, really, they just have to make the explanation sound more reasonable than a person in a costume who can literally breathe ice. Same goes for some of the stuff that’s just too common to hide. Magic effects like the purity marks get explained away by a dude in a lab coat pretending it’s just natural biology.”

Casper swallowed at that, unsure he liked where the conversation was headed, a small part of him surprised by the revelation that something as mundane as purity marks actually had some magical component.

“… What happens to the guy with ice breath, then?” he asked, his voice quivering just a little.

“Depends what he did,” Lewis grunted. “If he broke the secret to a few dozen people, he might get fined a few hundred bucks. If he hurt anyone, he might get a bit of jail time. Thing is, first gens get treated pretty evenly when they’re taken in. Suddenly developing superpowers can be enough to make you start acting real stupid, even make you a bit delusional. So it kinda gets treated like temporary insanity.” Casper nodded at that, relieved. “Different story for people who know about all this before, of course,” the hunter continued. “That’s why you don’t see people like me pulling superhero stuff. Vigilantism is a crime in this world just as much as it is in the normal one, and using powers to do it is treated a lot like using a gun to do it.” Again, Casper nodded. That made sense.

The two stopped talking a few moments as Lewis guided Casper onto a train car and they sat down, utterly ignored by those around them.

“So… I’m guessing a lot of people with powers wind up in gangs and stuff, right?” Casper asked, trying to think of a way to phrase it better and failing.

“Some of us,” Lewis replied evenly. “Depends what sort of person they are and what they can do. It comes in all flavors. Some of us set up shops, join the government, or start using our powers to do normal jobs in easier ways without attracting attention. Some of us have a bit less choice than that.” The hunter smiled at that, and it looked genuine, but under it, Casper felt a swell of bitterness from him.

“… What’s that mean?”

The hunter shrugged.

“Some of us have powers that are just too useful not to be used. Me, for example. I’m a tracker, a good one, too. I can find anything as long as I have its scent. My mom was like that, too. She was pretty well known for it. So when she died, I suddenly had a lot of people wanting the same services from me. A lot of the time, that was from people you can’t say no to easily. So I started taking jobs, and I told them that if anyone tried to make me work for them exclusively, I’d put a lighter up my nose and kill my power.” He gave Casper a hard look, before continuing. “Problem with that is, I have to be useful to everyone at least some of the time, or what’s to stop them just getting rid of me to stop the others having access? So sometimes I have to take jobs I really don’t want to do, like helping the Family track down some teenager.”

Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that. The hunter’s feelings weren’t giving him much to go on, either. Lewis’ emotions were cold. He wasn’t pleading, nor was he fishing for forgiveness, so why was he offering any explanation at all?

“… Why tell me this?” Casper asked eventually. “It doesn’t feel like something you’d just tell someone, so why tell me?”

Lewis shrugged, leaning back in his seat and gazing stonily at him across the train car.

“Because you’re the same as me,” he said dryly. “You’ve got the potential to be a tracker, and unlike me, your power probably wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of, so I’m giving you a warning. Keep quiet about it, or someone might force you to do things you really don’t like. Don’t even tell the government, if you can avoid it. They’re no better than the criminals, sometimes.”

Again, Casper wasn’t sure what to say. Something in the back of his mind told him that ‘thank you’ was a bad choice. Eventually, he settled on:

“Where are you taking me?”

“My place,” Lewis replied, shrugging. “I thought you might wanna talk to some kids your own age about all this. Help sort it all out in your head.”

Casper nodded, staring quietly at the floor, unsure of what to say once more.


James:

‘James. Come see me.’

He glanced briefly at the message as he unpacked his bag and shrugged. Maybe Casper was nervous again about what had happened at school.

“Hey, Mom?” he called into the hallway, opening his bedroom door. “Casper says he wants to meet up with me. Is it okay if I go to the mall for a bit?”

There was a momentary hesitation before Sarah’s voice replied from the living room on the floor below.

“Sure, sweetie. You want a ride? I was just about to go pick Bex up, anyways.” Her acting was good, James almost failed to notice the tightness in her voice.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Please. Should I call you when I’m done?”

“Yeah,” said Sarah, her head poking out into the stairwell. “If you could. Just tell me when you want to go, kay?”

James nodded, stepping briefly back into his room to change out of his school clothes, then headed down the stairs, flicking Casper a quick text in response.

‘Sure. Meet up at the GameStop near my place?’

He tracked down his mother and the two of them loaded into the car, spending most of the three minute journey to the mall in silence.

“You sure are spending a lot of time with Casper, lately,” Sarah murmured, eyes on the road. “You do remember you have other friends, right?”

“Yeah,” James replied with a chuckle. “I do. He’s just goofier than they are.”

“…He’s a nice boy,” she said after a moment, apparently more to herself than to him.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “He is.”

The rest of the trip passed in silence, Sarah depositing him at the entrance to the mall with another hug, and staying long enough to watch him step inside. He made his way to the GameStop and waited there for a few minutes, eventually taking out his phone and loading up a game to pass the time on. The game had just reached the opening screen when the text alert pinged. He closed the game for a moment to check the text. It was from a number he didn’t recognize, and only contained a single line of text, an address he didn’t know off the top of his head.

He gazed at the message for a few moments, confused, before the phone pinged again and another text emerged. His eyes drifted down to it, perplexed, then went wide. He felt his legs begin to shake a little, allowing his weight to shift down to the floor as he stared at the screen. This was not good. Not even a little. Forcing himself to be calm as best he could, he re-read the message, hoping against hope that he had somehow just read it wrong.

‘Tasha kidnapped. Using her phone. Second floor. Corner room closest to traffic light. They track by smell. She’s drugged. Wait an hour.’

He felt the panic begin to rise in his gut, and forced himself to breathe deep, shutting off the phone and closing his eyes.

Okay… Now what?

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Catharsis: 2.10

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Casper:

It felt… odd, moving through the building with Lewis. The minds in the rooms all around, their tones varying between mild happiness and moderate boredom, sat at odds with the faint waves of contempt emanating from his guide, and the far stronger feeling of it flowing from Tasha. Casper tried to push it out of his mind. Gathering info was the focus for now. Lewis carried his captive up along the hall, shifting his grip on her to a more comfortable carry now that they were away from prying eyes. Neither he nor Casper spoke as they moved along, climbing a cramped stairway into a small room where half a dozen people were gathered; mostly adults, a few around Casper’s age, their dress surprisingly casual for the moment.

They glanced up as Lewis approached, Casper close behind him, the old stairs creaking slightly underfoot, and Casper felt the emotions in the room change. Mild trepidation in the younger minds, a sense of something akin to triumph in the older ones. One of their number, a startlingly pretty woman in a simple shirt and pants, pushed off from where she leaned against the wall, facing the three of them.

“I’m guessing that’s the girl who tried to take the kids away, huh?” Casper would have caught the note of anger in her voice even if he couldn’t trace it in her mind. “Stay here. I’ll go get Marcus.”

Lewis nodded and the woman took her leave, stepping briskly off down the corridor and around the corner. Casper followed her mind with his power, tracing her as she moved, down the hall to a room against the far wall, where it would be pressed to the corner of the building. She gathered three others, each from a different room, before starting back towards them. He was uncomfortably aware that a few of the people nearby were gazing at him. One of the other kids had an eyebrow raised. There was no aggression in the attention, and he knew it; but it was unsettling, nonetheless. He swallowed.

“Who’s the kid?” one of the older ones asked, a hand raised towards him.

“New trainee,” Lewis replied shortly. “Giving him a bit of a tour.”

Before the conversation had the chance to continue, the woman returned.

“Right,” she muttered, gesturing to Lewis to follow her. “Come on. They’re waiting for you.”

The hunter turned his attention briefly to Casper.

“Stay here while I deal with this, okay? I should only be a minute or two.” With that, he strode off after the woman, Tasha still slung unceremoniously over his back.

For a moment, all was quiet. Casper stood nervously in the center of the small room, uncomfortably aware of all the eyes on him, trying as best he could to simply hold his focus on Tasha and ignore all else.

“Soo…” a teenager asked from his space by the small window, a glint of curiosity suffusing itself into his voice. “You’re one of Lewis’ new trainees? What do you do, then?”

“Uhh, what?” he replied, uncertain.

“You know,” the other boy continued, slightly annoyed. “You have powers, right? I mean, why else would the hunter be training you. So what do you do?”

“I…” Casper hesitated, before dropping his shoulders with a frustrated sigh. “Not much, really.”

“Holy crap,” the older boy murmured in a tone of feigned awe. “A superhuman who isn’t full of himself! I never thought I’d see one of those.”

A few of the younger teens snickered, amused, but Casper felt a flash of irritation from one of the older girls just a moment before she piped up.

“Alistair,” she chided. “Mind your manners.” The younger teen ignored her, so she turned her attention to Casper. “You want something to drink? You look kinda nervous.”

In spite of himself, he chuckled, allowing himself a momentary relief from the tension.

“Is it that obvious?”

There were a couple of nods around the room.

“You’re shaking like a leaf, buddy. Lemme guess, first time in a Family building?”

“I… I have no idea what that is,” he answered. “I’m… kinda new.”

The boy named Alistair laughed gently.

“Well then, I bet you have some questions. We have some time to kill. Why not go ahead and ask?” As he spoke, the older girl rose from her chair and walked off into the hall, hanging a right into one of the doorways that branched off of it. She returned a moment later, a can of lemonade clasped in a hand. She offered it to him, and he accepted, unsure what else to really do.

At the other end of the building, he felt Tasha changing hands, her fury replaced now by dread, accompanied by something else; not quite what he would call fear, but close. There were three other people in there with her now, besides the hunter. Two felt angry. The third was colder, more detached.

Casper popped the can open and took a sip, taking a few steps to one side and perching himself on the edge of one of the small armchairs that littered the space. For some reason, the first question that came to mind was also the most pointless, in a lot of ways.

“Why are you all so… you know… perfect looking?” he asked, his cheeks flushing slightly. Tasha had mentioned it a few times in the week since her first encounter with the inhabitants of the place and, looking around, he couldn’t say he disagreed. Among the faces of those in the room, he couldn’t spot a single blemish, all vibrantly colored eyes and perfect teeth. It was a little unnerving, actually.

Alistair grinned.

“That’s father’s work,” he said with a note of pride. “Every new brother or sister gets his touch so he can make us into our perfect selves. Then all you have to do is exercise, eat right and remember to brush.”

Casper cocked an eyebrow at that, unsure what there really was that he could say. He gazed down at his soda can, thinking. Their father made them pretty? And they were all okay with that, even knowing why? What really confused him, though, was the cheer that the idea seemed to bring to them all. At Alistair’s words, they had all begun to smile, a faint note of happiness playing through each of them in turn. Then a thought occurred, and he shook himself. He was missing a prime opportunity here.

“Hey,” he mumbled. “Is… is there a bathroom I can use somewhere?”

“Sure,” the older girl answered, still smiling that strange smile. “Go downstairs, first door on the left.”

With a word of thanks, Casper rose from his seat and turned to leave. He made his way down the stairs as slowly as he thought he could manage without seeming off, then found the bathroom and went inside. It was a public style affair, luckily enough, a number of oddly luxurious cubicles running along a far wall. He stepped inside one, locked the door behind him, and pulled out Tasha’s phone.

Above him, he could feel Lewis departing the room with the three unknowns, leaving Tasha behind him. He cursed himself silently for not having done this earlier on. He keyed in the code to unlock the phone, then pulled up the text screen. He had entered James’ number by the time the man was back in the room with Alistair. Casper felt a momentary suspicion from him, only partially allayed a moment later when the other boy no doubt told him where Casper had gone. He hastened to write his message, tapping as fast as his fingers would allow as he attempted to relay all the relevant information in the limited time he had. Lewis was coming down the stairs. He had twenty seconds, maybe. He finished the message, and tapped send, then, without a moment’s pause, he turned off the phone, leaned down, and dropped it in the toilet, praying to god that the flush would be strong enough to carry it away. He heard the sound of a door swinging open, then Lewis spoke.

“You in here, little guy?”

“Uhh, yeah?” Casper replied, trying to make his voice sound confused rather than scared. Acting on a sudden realization, he undid his fly, and began to pee. “You mind waiting outside? I’m nearly done.” He could feel the suspicion still emanating from the man.

“… You know I’m gonna break your thumbs if you fuck with me, right?”

Casper shuddered, then forced himself to calm.

“Y-yeah. I know that.”

“Just making sure you remembered. Get a move on, will you? I don’t like this place.”

With that, Lewis left, closing the door behind him. Casper breathed a sigh of relief, then finished peeing. His captor had enhanced smell. He needed to actually go to the bathroom, or the lie would be obvious. Luckily, terror was good for that.

He finished his business, and hit the flush, silently praying for this to work. The phone rattled slightly against the basin as the current picked it up, before carrying it thankfully out of sight. Casper took a moment to be grateful that Tasha’s phone was an older, smaller model than his own, before shakily making his way outside, stopping only to wash his hands.

He opened the door to the hallway and was only half surprised when the older man immediately grasped him by the collar, pulling him somewhat off balance in the process, and began patting him down. He bore with it in silence until Lewis was satisfied that he wasn’t carrying anything, whereupon the hunter demanded to be shown the contents of his schoolbag. Eventually, the hunter was calmed, his suspicions allayed for the moment. He sighed, handing Casper back his school bag almost tiredly.

“Alright,” he murmured evenly. “Now it’s time to teach you about this world we’re in.”

Casper nodded, putting his arms back through the loops of his bag, trying not to let the relief show on his face.

“Yeah,” he answered quietly. “… I think there’s a lot I need to learn.”

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Catharsis: 2.9

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Casper:

The boy took a shaky breath, eyes fixed on his phone screen as he waited for James to respond. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Nothing. The crowd moved all around him, jostling him as he stood, rooted to the spot, one or two adults muttering something under their breaths as they stepped around him towards the crossing lights. Still nothing from James. A little voice in the back of his mind told him that his friend was still on his way home, his phone probably stuck in the bottom of his bag, unnoticed.

Casper took a breath, acutely aware of the presence of the hunter by Tasha’s side, aware too of the panic coursing through her mind at that very moment. Why wasn’t she moving away? Did he have a gun on her? What was it? The two were drifting away from him, making an easy pace through the people all around. He could walk away, he knew, could turn and run, probably even avoid any further part of all this. Hell, Tasha would probably want him to do that. But what if he could help her? He came to a decision, grit his teeth, and turned to follow them. He wasn’t at all sure what he could do, or if there even was anything he could do, but he could feel Tasha’s emotions like a nagging voice in his head. So angry and frantic, turning to a twinge of fear that grew larger by the second. He couldn’t leave it like that, though a part of him wished he could.

The hunter turned down a new street as Casper followed, and the boy soon had a decent guess of his destination. He was headed towards the building that Tasha had attacked. He felt an angry tear trickling down his cheek at the reminder. This was all his fault. He closed the distance, occasionally losing sight of the two of them in the mid-afternoon foot traffic. He followed them with his mind. After a few minutes of this, he felt the hunter duck into an alleyway, Tasha still moving in perfect lockstep with him. The stranger pulled back, pressed against a wall, an undefinable emotion somewhere between annoyance and respect playing in his mind. By context, it was not difficult for Casper to understand the meaning of it. The man had noticed him following, and had chosen to lie in wait for him. Casper steeled himself, a clear voice inside of him vocalizing a reminder that this was very stupid, and stepped forward. He skirted wide around the entrance to the alleyway, stepping out in front of it in a lull between two groups of people walking the battered sidewalk.

The hunter was there, gazing out at him, impassive, a slight note of surprise playing in his mind. Tasha was leaned up against the wall behind him, her face blank, even slack. In her mind, though, Casper felt the first true shock of fear at the sight of him. He struggled to keep his expression calm, gazing across at the man. A few seconds passed, the two staring through at one another, almost unnoticed by the occasional group of passersby that moved between them.

“How’d you know I was waiting?” the man asked, quiet.

“How’d you know I was following?” Casper replied, forcing a calm into his voice that he most certainly did not feel.

“… Fair enough,” came the answer with a shrug, followed by a small smile. “I smell people. Okay kid? Now, how’d you know I was hiding?”

Casper nodded. Well, that answered one question, at least. Best to give an answer, he decided; a half truth to keep the dialogue going and, hopefully, gain more answers.

“… I feel people,” he answered. The stranger made a thoughtful expression, stroking his stubble with a finger, then nodded, gesturing for him to elaborate with a wave of his hand. Casper sighed, then pointed dismissively at the wall against which the man leaned. “Two women, one man, a couple kids. The women are together, probably talking about something. The man’s watching the kids.”

“Handy,” the stranger said simply, his mind shifting from curiosity to outright interest. “Not often I get to meet another potential tracker in my line of work. It’s a cool power you’ve got there, little man.”

Casper ignored him, gesturing to Tasha.

“What’d you do to her?” he asked, his voice breaking for a moment on the last syllable.

“Poison,” the tracker replied. “Comes in handy, doing what I do. She’ll be alright in an hour, but she’s a little limp right now.”

Casper accepted that. The man had no reason to lie, and his emotional state gave no real indication of falsehood.

“I could scream,” he said evenly. “There’s people around. People with cameras.”

“You could,” The hunter said amicably, not even a hint of fear touching him at the idea. “And it’d work, for now. I’d have to run, you’d get your friend free, and I’d know exactly who it was that got in my way. I know I said I don’t like hurting kids. But I’m gonna put this one on the table right now. I’m not above punishing you if you do something stupid. I’ve warned you, you know the dangers, and I will hurt you very badly if you get in my way.” The words were spoken casually, without any anger or malice behind them, but Casper had no difficulty believing them one hundred percent. He stood there, uncertain, for a long moment, before the man put a hand to his forehead with a sigh. “Wow, you’re just gonna keep walking into danger, aren’t you, kid? I tell you what. Come with me.”

“What?” Casper asked, utterly backfooted. “Let you kidnap me? No thank you.”

“I’m not kidnapping you, kid.” The stranger chuckled. “No one’s paid me to. Look, it’s a big world, you’re living in, and as far as I can tell, you don’t have a damn clue how to live in it. Let me guess. Your parents don’t have powers, do they? You’re a first gen.”

“First gen?” Casper asked, momentarily distracted.

“Yeah, see?” the man raised a hand towards him in an almost dismissive sort of wave, as if to say that he’d just proved some self-evident point. “You don’t know a damn thing about any of it. Okay, it’s very simple. First gen means your parents are just normal guys. No powers, nothing special, and no one really able to teach you about what’s out there. First gen means you come into this stuff blind. That’s why I’m telling you to come with me. Let me show you around, give you the lay of the land, help you stay out of the kind of trouble your friend here got herself into.” He jerked a thumb behind him towards Tasha, who still lay slumped against the wall, the surge of fear at Casper’s arrival having slowly lessened as it became apparent that he was not currently under threat, dying back to a subdued sort of rage.

Casper hesitated for a long moment, then eventually nodded. It was an olive branch, he knew, offered without a trace of insincerity. More importantly, it gave him a chance to gather more knowledge to formulate some kind of rescue.

The man smiled, stepping forward from the alleyway and extending a hand.

“Well then,” he murmured. “The name’s Lewis, kid. Nice to meet you.”

Casper took it and shook with only a moment’s hesitation.

“… Casper,” he replied, reasoning that he may as well give the man his name, if he already knew where he went to school. Hell, the guy had probably seen his name in the yearbook by now. They kept a copy by the administration desk.

Lewis nodded, approving.

“Good to see you’re being honest with me. For the next two hours, though, your name’s Danny Reynolds. You got that?” Casper nodded. “Good. Now give me your phone.”

“Why?” Casper frowned, trying to ignore the jab of fear spiking painfully into his chest. “It’s mine.”

“Don’t play dumb,” Lewis replied, annoyed. “We both know you’re still looking for some way to turn this situation around. I’m keeping you with me for the next two hours more so that I can stop you pulling something stupid than because I want to help you. That phone’s the biggest chance you’re gonna have at making a bad decision, and I don’t plan on letting you have it.”

“… Fine,” Casper muttered, glaring at the older man. “Just let me call my dad. Tell him I’ll be home late.”

Lewis nodded, waited for Casper to make the call, the boy exchanging a few mumbled sentences with the man on the other end of the line, before extending his hand for the device. Casper ended the call, let out a defeated breath, and handed over the phone. Lewis turned it off and slid it into a pocket of his trench coat. Then ducked back into the alleyway and picked up Tasha from where she lay, positioning the teen against his shoulder in a manner that looked more or less natural as long as one wasn’t looking too closely. Then, without a word, he stepped out into the city street once more, gesturing with his free hand for Casper to follow them.

The boy obliged, kicking his feet miserably, before a hint from Tasha caught his eye. She was still desperate, her mind filled with a silent fury at her own capture and a lingering concern for his own safety, but there was something else there now. Hope. Had she had an idea? Casper gazed at her back as they walked, keeping step a few meters behind the other two, and thought desperately. What had Tasha thought of? What idea had she had that would give them a chance here? It needed to be something that could keep him out of trouble, or she wouldn’t be so affected by it, and it needed to be something that could help. The only thing Casper could think of that would help here was his phone, and that option was gone now.

Wait… Tasha had a phone. Tasha had a phone that he knew the password to. It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was something. Casper stepped in closer, hoping against hope that Lewis wouldn’t choose this moment to turn, would keep his eyes focused forwards. Casper stepped in so that the bulk of Tasha’s admittedly slight frame was concealing him from their captor’s view, and reached out a hand, dipping it into the girl’s pocket as quickly as he dared. His fingers touched something plastic.

“Your dad really a cop?” Lewis asked conversationally, the sound practically making him jump out of his skin.

“K-kinda,” he answered, his fingers clasping around the casing of the object and pulling at it. “H-he works with them a lot, but he does more of a government thing, I think.” The object slid gently from the pocket, and Casper felt both his and Tasha’s hearts leap. It was her phone. He pocketed it as quickly as he dared, and moved back a little, away from the pair.

“Figures,” Lewis chuckled, eyes forward. “No way you’d be going to a school that fancy if your dad was just some beat cop. It was a slick move, though. You had me going for a second there.”

“… Not that fancy,” Casper mumbled, defensive.

“Danny,” came the amused sounding reply. “You go to a school in the city that has a dress code and a flower garden. Trust me, that’s fancy. Anyway, be quiet for now. We’re here.”

Casper glanced ahead, and, true enough, saw the face of the building he’d flagged just a week or so before. One of the second story windows was broken, a solid wooden board temporarily placed against the frame. With his power, Casper could feel the minds of those inside; men, women and children, all moving about one another with a surprising degree of energy, most of them seemingly riding the calm and good cheer of a generally pleasant day. He felt one or two things in the upper levels that made him flinch, but did not allow his power to withdraw itself. He needed to be as aware as was physically possible for this.

Lewis stepped in first, adjusting his grip on Tasha, before carrying her casually inside. Casper took a deep breath, dug for a moment into the surprising good cheer of the building’s inhabitants to steady himself, then followed. Dear god, he hoped this worked.

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Catharsis: 2.8

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James:

’32 pounds.’ James sighed as he stepped off the scales. His new state had remained aggravatingly constant since Casper’s departure the previous evening, to the degree that he had struggled slightly even to do simple things, like opening the bathroom door with its unfortunate tendency to jam against the frame, the wood slightly misshapen and warped in the years since its installation.

It was being weak, more than being light, that felt the strangest to him. His school uniform felt heavy against his skin, the light cotton shirt weighing down on him like a thick fleece. At breakfast, he’d fumbled with his cutlery a few times, not expecting the extra effort required to lift it. Most troubling of all, he had tried, while getting dressed, to lift his school bag, and had found he could barely stand under it, the loose collection of textbooks and gear weighing on his legs as though he were trying to lift a whole other person. He had redressed the balance with his power, lifting most of the weight with his flight so that the extra effort was expressed as pressure against his shoulders rather than as strain on his legs. It was an easy fix, but he wasn’t at all pleased to be left so reliant on his powers in his daily life.

He tried to let those frustrations slip from his mind on the way to school, staring out of the window as Bex babbled on in the seat to his left, only half paying attention. In his mind, he was reaching out, his power extending out into the air surrounding the car, apparently unhindered by the glass partition of the window. He played, experimented in his way, making little gusts and dervishes play out and dissipate overhead. He flicked a tree, and watched as the shock sent dozens of loose leaves spiraling out from the canopy. He played with the breeze beneath them, shifting the wind to keep the pieces airborne. They passed a hot dog stand and he could swear, even with the window closed, he could smell the grease saturating the air around it.

Casper was waiting for him at the school doors, skipping anxiously on the balls of his feet as his eyes scanned the crowd, his hands fiddling at the cuffs of his blazer. Even from a distance, James could tell something was wrong. The boy was pale, his eyes wide and glassy. He quickened his pace towards him.

“Hey, Cas. What’s wro-”

He was cut off mid sentence as the taller boy grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into a tight hug, burying his face against his shoulder and squeezing. A few people glanced their way, before turning their attention back to their own matters.

“Help,” the boy whispered urgently in his ear, his eyes wet. “Please, help.”

James stalled for a moment, a few gears in his head slipping on their tracks, before he righted himself, a sort of focus settling into him that drove the confusion aside.

“Come on,” he murmured, pulling back slightly and grabbing Casper’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere quiet, kay?”

He tugged at his friend’s hand, guiding him out of the throng of students, towards a more deserted section of the campus. The school was dotted with small segments of grass, breaking up the brickwork of the flooring, each lined with benches and flowerbeds. These spaces went largely unused day to day, serving more as a statement of the school’s wealth, that it could afford decorative space in a place as cramped as New York, but they served well when people needed a little privacy. James pulled Casper along to one of the benches, and sat him down against it, where he gazed at the floor, face white, playing with his hands.

“Now,” he asked. “What’s wrong, bud? Tell me everything.”

Casper took a deep breath, then another, then began to speak. James listened, and tried his best to remain calm; he didn’t want to be contributing to his friend’s panic. Casper told him everything, refusing eye contact, hands determinedly fiddling with themselves throughout. He told James about the man, about their conversation and about the thinly veiled threat at the end of it all.

After that, both were silent for a time, James trying to quell his rising fear and managing to force himself to a tense sort of calm, Casper still determinedly avoiding looking at him.

“… Do you think they know about me?” James asked, forcing his voice to remain level.

Casper shook his head.

“Don’t think so,” he mumbled. “Not sure… I don’t even know how they found out about me, but I figure if they knew about you, then the guy would’ve talked to you too, right?”

James nodded. “Yeah, you’re right about that, I think.”

Casper took another deep breath, then swallowed.

“… What am I gonna do?”

“… I think…” James hesitated, then shook himself. “I think we can fix this.”

For the first time since he’d started talking, Casper looked at him. His eyes were still wide, his face streaked with a few thin trails of tears.

“…How?”

James took a moment to marshal his thoughts, then began speaking, his tone one of forced reassurance.

“Well, that guy said he didn’t want to hurt you, right? And that means he’s probably not gonna tell the people who sent him anything about you, cuz he knows they might wanna hurt you for getting in his way.” Casper nodded mechanically, his expression unchanged. James took that as his cue to continue. “And it sounds like he didn’t know anything about your power, cuz if he did, he’d have talked to you different, right?” Another nod, slightly more human now. “And that means that no matter what, at the moment, the only person in trouble here is Tasha, right? And that’s okay, because she wanted it that way, right?”

Casper sniffled, his knuckles going white as his hands clenched against one another.

“R-right,” he mumbled, letting out a shaky sigh. “I-yeah… Right…You’re right, thanks.”

James smiled, a fraction of the tension leaving him upon seeing his reasoning stand up to someone else’s eye.

“What you need right now,” he continued. “Is more information. Tasha needs to know more so that she can keep you out of it better. You need to find out how this guy found you, and you need to find a way to make sure it never happens again, right?” Again, Casper nodded, a little less shaky now. “So all we need to do is figure out how to get this guy talking without you looking like you’re involved.” Casper swallowed, a moments distaste crossing his features, but nodded once again.

“I think we can do that,” he muttered. “Tasha used me as a lie detector once, a few months ago… We didn’t do it again, because it was… it was bad… But I could… I mean… I could do it over the phone or something, right? Hide inside a building?”

James nodded.

“Sounds like an idea. Next thing you need to do, then, is talk to Tasha. Make a plan, okay?”

“Right,” Casper agreed, his panic seemingly settled to a more tolerable degree of nerves. “Okay, we can do this. Thanks, James.”

“It’s okay,” James replied, resting a hand on the other boy’s shoulder. “You helped me out last night, right?”

James had not been expecting Casper to hug him, and let out a little stuttering sound in surprise as the taller boy’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him close. It was… uncomfortable, in a way, but he allowed it without complaint, figuring it was just what his friend needed in that moment. After a few seconds, Casper let him go with a mumbled apology, his face slightly red. James remained silent, unsure of what to say, eventually settling for a small smile and a shake of the head.

“Please don’t make hugs a regular thing, okay?” he said quietly. “Especially now that I’m too weak to push you off.”

“Right… sorry,” Casper replied, still a little red. “Only when I’m being followed by criminals, promise.”

James chuckled.

“C’mon. We better get to class.”


Two hours later, Tasha:

“Are you kidding?” Tasha asked, fingers clenching on the phone casing hard enough that she was having to force herself not to crush it by accident. “Dude, next time that happens, you tell them everything about me!”

Casper went quiet on the other end of the line, cut off mid sentence. After a few tense seconds, he spoke, his voice sad.

“But I don’t wanna get you hurt cuz of me.”

“Yeah,” Tasha replied, her voice fierce. “Well I don’t want you getting hurt for me either. Difference is, you’re still a kid! Casper, If I get hurt cuz someone forced you to talk about me, then that’s just someone else being a dick. If you get yourself hurt for me, then I’m the shitty hero who let some kid take a bullet for her, you get me?”

Casper didn’t reply, either agreeing, or biting his tongue; Tasha wasn’t sure which.

“Look,” she sighed. “I’m the one who got herself into this. I don’t wanna drag you in too, same for James. You’re too young for it, kay?”

“… Kay.” There was an emotion in Casper’s response that she couldn’t place. She ignored it. For the moment, he was listening, and that was all that mattered.

“Now, you said James said something about a plan?” she asked. “Some kinda ambush interrogation thing?”

“… Yeah,” the boy answered eventually. “… We figured he’d probably follow me home and stuff till he found you, and I could use my power from somewhere hidden to-”

“We’re not doing that,” she cut him off. “We don’t know how he found you in the first place, so even if you’re hiding the whole time, it’s dangerous for you. No.”

“… Ok,” came the reply after a second. This time, Tasha had no difficulty identifying the emotion behind the word. Relief. She didn’t blame him.

The line was quiet on both sides for over a minute, Tasha thinking, Casper waiting in silence. Eventually, she spoke up, her tone commanding.

“I want you to tell me what he looks like, and what he sounds like. You will walk home today by that cafe we went to last Thursday. After that, I want you to forget this ever happened, and if you ever feel him near you again, I want you to ignore the hell out of him, okay?”

“… Okay.”

Tasha closed her eyes and let out a sigh, staying quiet for a minute or so as he described the man in question.

“Good,” she murmured once he was done. “Thank you. I’m sorry this got to you, Cas. I’ll deal with it, I promise.” Casper began to reply, but she had hung up before he was more than a word in.

She placed the phone back in her pocket, stood from her seat on the couch, and tested her leg. Still pretty stiff. She’d be walking with a limp for a few days, at least. Well, that would certainly make this trickier.

Tasha pushed that trouble from her mind as she made her way into her apartments junk cluttered kitchen, grabbing Maxie’s lead from the sideboard where she had left it. She found a change of clothes, tracked down her wayward dog, and took the guy out for a walk. Thinking was easier in the open air, and Maxie liked spending time outside. It was a win-win, even if she had to hobble.

Tasha found a hot dog stand on her way to the park, and ordered two covered in cheap cheese and grease. She devoured the first enthusiastically, before pulling the sausage from the second for Maxie, and consuming the bun on its own. When finally at the park, she propped herself up against a tree, grabbed a stick from the ground, and tossed it for her companion to chase. Unfortunately for him, she had quite the arm. She passed hours this way, throwing the stick again and again, watching the other park goers come and go with their own pastimes, her mind gradually working through to its conclusion. By midday, she had a plan.

She played with Maxie for another hour, before making her way home to prepare. She changed to a darker set of clothes, ate a more substantial meal, and watched a movie on her phone until it was finally time to make her move. Tasha gave Maxie a scratch behind the ears, before making her way out of the apartment. She crossed the city with time to spare, and waited in an alleyway beside the cafe she had specified, concealed as best she could in she shadows cast by the buildings on either side, largely hidden from the passing crowd.

It wasn’t very long before Casper passed her spot, eyes forward, not looking at her.

“It’s gonna be fine,” she murmured gently as he walked by. He gave no sign that he had noticed the words, besides briefly jerking a thumb behind himself towards the crowd.

“Thanks,” Tasha answered simply as he moved out of earshot. Then, she waited.

The plan was simple. Wait till the guy passed, then snag him, step out into the street, grab his wrist as if he were a lifelong friend, then pull him into the alleway and make damn sure he never went after Casper again. It was simple, it was straightforward, and it failed utterly.

The man caught her eye perhaps half a minute after Casper had passed her, brown jacket, bad stubble, bad hat, just as described, his hands in his pockets. She waited for him to pass her, then stepped out into the daylight, smiling a wide, friendly sort of smile. She moved in behind him, and reached for his wrist. Tasha knew it had gone wrong the moment her fingers clamped down around his arm as, with a quick, simple movement, his free hand moved from his pocket and shifted alongside her own. She felt a small pain, a tiny prick as something sharp and slim pierced the skin of her wrist for the briefest of moments before being withdrawn.

“Little bit of advice,” the man murmured, shifting in close beside her as he walked. “You need to wash more often. I could smell you from the other end of the street.”

Oh. Shit.

Tasha gritted her teeth in frustration, and tried to exert some control of the situation by squeezing his wrist a little harder in her grip. Nothing. She glanced down. Her hand hadn’t moved, her fingers felt numb, as if they weren’t even there.

Tasha opened her mouth to scream, perhaps incite the crowd, anything, really, but found that her vocal cords were utterly still. She narrowed her eyes, mouthed a swearword at him, and then felt her body going limp. He slipped in under her, catching her under a shoulder with one hand, and held her upright as her legs began to sag. The adrenaline began to pump through her, and she fought with all her might, desperately trying to will her body to move away from him, to escape or fight back. Anything. One of her legs kicked weakly.

“I am sorry about this,” the hunter murmured. “But hey, at least the family doesn’t want you dead. Small mercies, right?”

She felt something terrible sink into the pit of her stomach as the man began to pull her away, shifting his grip to carry her after a few yards.

Some distance away, Casper grit his teeth, blinked a few times to rid his eyes of the sudden tears, and pulled out his phone. The text he typed in was brief, simple, and the only thing he could think to say.

‘James. Come see me.’

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