Need: 9.5

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The boy swam unaided through the patchy gloom of the ocean floor, wending through a forest of seaweed, his way lit by the faint light of nearby fish. He made for the side of the cliff face that ringed the outer edges of the underwater canyon; a thousand foot wall of smooth stone and coral.

His companion was restless. The boy knew it. He could feel it through their bond; an empty, hollow sort of agitation. The closest word the boy had for it was loneliness. But that didn’t really do it justice. Loneliness wasn’t normally a driving force. It didn’t energize like this. It was hunger, plain and simple. His companion had to feed. He never liked this part.

The boy reached the base of the cliff face, and set his eyes upward. It was dark down here, a fact little aided by the sparse notes of bioluminescence from the sea life all around. That wasn’t a problem. He could deal with the dark. A practiced motion in his mind, a brief expenditure of energy, and the world lit in vibrant indigo, the ocean depths a rich, faintly pulsing neon.

That was better. He could see the cliff-face now. He pulled himself roughly upright, and made a portal to a point some two hundred feet further upward in the water. He swam through it, and from his new vantage point, scanned the surface of the rock.

Spots of coral; small crevices where nestled grey hued crabs almost larger than the boy was; none of it what he was looking for. He moved on. Another portal, another unbroken stretch of canyon wall.

They sang together as he worked, his companion and he. A shared melody across their minds. His own voice was quiet and light, almost lilting. The other was deep and resonant, slow and grand as the tides themselves. Once upon a time, the sound had almost caused him pain. He was stronger now. The song was good. It helped distract his companion from its need. It soothed the pain of wounds that had yet to heal.

It was on the eighth portal that he found it; a deep crevice in the surface of the rock, a faint glow coming from within. He let his sight fade back to the fractionally more than human level at which he kept it, and swam forth into the cave.

To his eye, the plants that sprouted all throughout the cave’s interior were much like any other kind of algae. In form, at least. They grew extensively, without the limitations of pollution or nutrition. That was the norm on his new world. What made these ones different from the majority was the way they glowed, a halo of cobalt emanating from the tips of every stem until, even half a mile beneath the surface, the sunken furrow outshone the moons above.

The boy found it beautiful.

He sent images flowing through the song to his companion, each met with the kind of interest that comes from only caring about a subject because a loved one does. He called his companion a spoilsport. It didn’t understand the word.

With a shrug, the boy swam deeper. The furrow angled upwards into the cliff, pushing up through a narrow crevice in the rock, then into the cavern’s true interior.

What he found when he squeezed inside was unusual. It was organized. Maintained. Natural, yet not untouched. The space was wide and not quite flat, perhaps a hundred feet across. A rough circle, like the interior of a discus, gaining depth towards the middle. On the outer edges of the ring, there sat more of the glowing algae shrubs, in whose light basked a crescent ring of coral. Within that, a forest of upraised crawler vines obscured the true centre of the space from view. Charlie grinned. He knew a dwelling when he saw one. Something lived here.

He sent a chirp of confirmation through the song to his companion, and a moment later, felt as the harmony shifted. Even now, he knew, his companion would be lifting itself up from the seabed, positioning itself at the entrance of the cave.

He swam closer, peering in through the tendrils, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever lay within.

There was a brief image of what might have been a clamshell; a luminescent pearl sitting in its mouth, before the space’s occupant chose to manifest. It was like a shark, in a way. One of the smaller ones with the extra fins sprouting from the tail. There were differences, of course. Where an earthly shark would be a mottled grey, this one was patterned in stark lines of black and white, weaving across its form as if daubed by a calligrapher. That and the tendrils, trailing backwards from the tips of the larger fins, each sporadically discharging lightning against its body whenever they were still.

It materialized in the reeds above him, its presence made known by the disturbance it brought among them. He looked up, and met its gaze. There was no aggression there. Not that he could tell, at least. This one didn’t seem too territorial. It looked him over, sizing up this new, four-limbed land dweller that had somehow wandered into its domain. It was curious, as all guardians were of new life. In the part of him that was still human, Charlie felt the urge to bow. He restrained the impulse. It wouldn’t have understood the gesture anyways.

For its part, the guardian of the canyon drifted towards him, its semi-spectral snout passing once above his head to sniff, then pulling back. A snap of sparks along its tendrils, the discharge seeping through the water enough to stand the hairs on Charlie’s neck on end. A display of power. It wasn’t a threat. Not quite. Just an assurance. It was the master of this domain. He was to consider himself warned. Once that was done, the spirit seemed to lose interest. It looked away, returning to float amid the reeds.

Charlie folded his arms, quietly impressed. This guardian was powerful. This would do.

Another short stream of images through the song, and his companion let out a groan. It was so hungry.

Charlie found he couldn’t look at the guardian anymore. He never liked this part. With a thought, he opened up his portal. With a gesture, he smashed its barriers to dust. The protector spirit of this realm stared through the hole in space, right into the eye of the Whale. His companion began to feed.

Charlie swam back to the entrance of the cave, asking quietly that his companion restrain itself enough to let its prey survive. It might heed him. He did not know. For now, the hunger would be bearable for a few more weeks. That would be enough.

He made a portal to the surface. He felt a need to breathe the air again. A few moments treading water, letting his shields adjust to the sudden change in pressure. He squeezed the water slowly from his lungs. Never a pleasant feeling. Then came the inhale. Fresh, morning air, scented with iridescent salt. He cast his gaze around, and saw a mountain island just barely poking over the far horizon. Another portal, and he was standing on the shoreline.

The sun felt good against his shoulders. Might as well make use of the warm, while it was there. He braced his hands against his knees, and did his best to shake the water from his hair. Time to deal with his own hunger. He wondered if the trees here had fire melons.


Lewis Themps stepped through the portal and took a long breath through his nose, checking for the telltale scent of his chosen quarry.

Foreign fruit. Tree sap. Bird shit. Seaweed. A faint tang of that ever present saffron smell. Nothing recent.

A brief jog across to the other side of the micro-island, a government agent running alongside him for his protection, and he tried again. Still nothing of what he was looking for.

They went back to the portal and crossed back over. Lewis shook his head.

“Not that one,” he said, addressing the words to the woman holding the portal open. “Hasn’t been there in months.”

The portal snapped shut. An agent drew a cross on a map.

“Right,” came the reply. “On to the next, then.”

Lewis grunted. They’d been at this for five hours, transiting piecemeal between every landmass Jacqueline Vance had identified. Check the trail, see how recently her son had been there, move on to the next. That had been destination number twenty, not that the lack of tangible results had diminished the woman’s optimism any.

Lewis leaned his back against a tree trunk, habitually feigning relaxation as Jackie set about conjuring her next portal. It was hard to be at ease around the U.S. government. He folded his arms. That felt stiff, so he unfolded them again, hands shoved into his pockets.

“Next area’s the central landmass of section B-3,” Jackie called, the fifty or so assembled souls of the search party nodding along at the words. “It’s near two miles from end to end, so we’ll be sending everyone through at once. When you’re all through, fan out and do a full sweep from one end of the island to the other. Set timers for half an hour, then regroup and move on.”

Around them, the assorted specialists, military types, and office workers began to set their watches.

“I can’t get a full sense of the area moving with a search cordon,” Lewis spoke up. “Not in half an hour, at least. Too wide of a space. Not enough time to check it all if I’m moving slowly.”

Jackie nodded.

“No searching alone,” she answered. “My son is powerful enough to pose a threat to the strongest fighters we have available. We do this as a group, for safety’s sake. Take some people with you.”

Lewis inclined his head.

“I need the fastest runners,” he said to the group at large. “Whoever thinks they can keep up. If you fall behind, go back to the cordon. I don’t have time to slow down for you.”

The challenge drew looks of consternation from a few, mild annoyance from others. Five or so of the more military types raised their hands, along with one of the scrawnier looking specialists.

Lewis cocked his head towards the scrawnier one and sniffed.

The smell of earth and freshwater. None of the telltale scents of sweat or antiperspirant like those on either side. 

‘Huh. Goblin. Well, at least that one might keep up.’

“Right. You’re with me then.”

When the portal opened, his team was the first through to the new island. Another deep breath. No scent trail. Nothing out of the ordinary here. He glanced about, and set his eyes on a point several hundred feet further in along the shoreline.

Check there next.

He set off through the sand at a sprint, his escort following suit less than half a second later. He was surprised. They were keeping up relatively well, in spite of the enhanced speed his own abilities allowed him. Of the humans, three had managed to remain within a few dozen feet of him, the fourth had fallen well behind. The goblin, for their part, had matched his stride.

A minute or so of running later, he took another deep breath through his nose. Still nothing out of the ordinary. He grunted, turning back toward his team.

“We’ll do a full circuit of the island,” he murmured. “Pausing every couple hundred feet for a deeper check. You three,” he gestured to the three remaining human agents. “You three fan out behind me. Keep me in line of sight, but not too close. If something gets the drop on us, I don’t want us all grouped up.” He turned to the goblin. “You stay with me.”

The others nodded their assent.

“Radios at the ready,” the goblin spoke up. “We keep in contact the whole time. Just on the off chance.”

As one, the agents each flicked a button on a handheld radio at their belts. Lewis belatedly did the same. There was a buzz of static as a frequency was set, echoed mutely by those of his companions as they joined it.

With that determination made, the group set off. Another short sprint across the shoreline. Another pause. Another smell. Still negative, so they set off again. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. When they reached the point at which the island began to broaden out, they pushed into the forest. Their sprints became highlighted by the lush new scents of their surroundings, rich and heady to Lewis and his nose. They proceeded quietly, no communication beyond a visual check in every time they stopped. No sound beside the gentle thud of footfalls on the earth.

They were reaching the far end of the island when he finally found something. First came the smell, drifting across Lewis’ path as he ran. Dry coral over saffron. The scent of the wayward child and the creature that had taken him. It wasn’t faint this time. It was recent. Within the last few hours, even. He swallowed the small burst of elation at the scent. There was pride to a successful hunt.

He threw out an arm for his companion, both of them drawing rapidly to a halt. Behind them, the other three members of his escort followed suit.

Lewis didn’t respond to the questioning look the goblin shot him, instead taking up his radio, and switching to the main frequency.

“I’ve got a trail. It’s potent. Last few hours, maybe.”

A short crackle of static, then Jacqueline replied, suppressed excitement evident in her every word.

“Is it him?” she asked.

“Hell if I know,” he grunted. “Just smells of the slime you gave me, but it’s the same stuff. Looks like it leads into the forest. Do you want me to zero in-”

“Fall back,” Jackie ordered. “Mark your position and return to the main group. We’ll surround the area, then you’ll guide a retrieval team.”

“On our way.”

He clicked the handheld back off.

“Alright folks. Back the way we came-”

That was as far as he got before the sense of dread fell over them. He’d been warned about this in the briefing: A quiet, oppressive kind of fear, like a scratching in his skull.

The Whale had noticed them.

“Back to the others,” the goblin ordered. “Double time.”

From somewhere in that endless ocean, the Whale roared.

It was like running through putty. A sense of weight. Unending, uncaring pressure, setting deep about arms, shoulders, and knees. It was exhausting, the tiny stresses of movement failing to fade with each new breath. Worse than that, though. It was apathy. The desire to run leeching slowly from his limbs. Fight or flight flickered out. He didn’t care. He made it twenty steps before he lost his feet. The goblin made it only a little further before they joined him, slumping to the ground, whether from exhaustion, or simple apathy, he couldn’t tell.

“The radio,” the goblin muttered. “Call for help.”

Neither of them did. Neither of them cared. Ahead of them, the others began to fall as well.

The crunching of sand underfoot. The scent of coral and saffron on his nose.

“Did my mom send you?” the boy asked.

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Need: 9.4

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“You’ll probably be needed there for a week or two, no more,” said Tsuru Toranaga. “It should be apparent fairly quickly whether your assistance is a help or not. If it isn’t, I’ll return you to Manhattan. If it is, you’ll be well compensated for your time.”

Lewis Themps closed his eyes, and sighed.

“Promise you won’t be burning this one alive too?”

A sharp smile.

“I hadn’t planned on it. My grandson is rather fond of him.”

“Lucky kid,” Lewis grunted. “And if I say no?”

The Lady Toranaga frowned.

“Then I’d be disappointed. You’d be turning down good pay for skilled work. And work in the name of a positive cause for once. Reuniting a mother and son.”

“So I have a choice this time?” Lewis asked, one eyebrow raised. “Setting a dangerous precedent.”

Tsuru snorted.

“I’m not in the habit of forcing others to repay my debts. I will assist in the search, because my family’s failures are what led to his abduction in the first place. That is my obligation. If you are willing to help as well, then you are welcome.”

Lewis considered that for a moment, mulling it over.

“A hundred thousand,” he said evenly. “Per day. Another million if I help you find him.”

The woman shrugged.


Three million dollars. That had been the price for Lewis Themps’ initial loyalty. Quite cheap, when it came down to it. There had been fringe benefits, of course. Enrolments at a private school for the kids; the older Toranagas’ personal protection so that he would never have to face being extorted for his services again. A few other things. 

It was a bit odd, honestly. When they’d offered him whatever payment he wanted, he hadn’t realized they were being literal. But no, they really had let him name his price. In the months since, watching as the kids had flourished and slowly getting used to not having to look over his own shoulder all the time, he had almost come to forgive them. But not quite. The old witch had threatened to remove his tongue, after all.

Needless to say, when he finally met the boy around whom it had all pivoted, his experience was a touch surreal.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. He’d been warned the kid might be here. Even so, stepping through the portal onto some random ass Bermudan backwater, surrounded by the bustle of government types doing who knew what multitude of tasks, he felt some small trepidation. A trepidation that was followed by a sense of anticlimax as, glancing around, he found himself making eye contact with the boy over whom the Toranagas had burned a man alive.

He looked so normal.

‘Well,’ Lewis amended. ‘As normal as a kid that age can look while surrounded by government sponsored paramilitary assets.’ 

He shifted his gaze purposefully elsewhere, and hefted his rucksack a little higher on his back. He glanced around, inhaling slowly through his nose to get a sense of those around him.

Beach sand. Ocean water. Seaweed. Sweat. Salt. Three different varieties of axe body spray. Traces of something unfamiliar, like dry coral mixed with saffron; barely present.

He filed that observation away. It was rare to encounter a scent he was unfamiliar with.

He identified Peter Toranaga easily enough. Easy to pick out amongst the largely caucasian mass of agents moving to and from the waiting portals, ferrying container after container through from some silo back in the U.S. The man was talking with a tired looking woman, a few feet distant from his son. Lewis stepped on over.

“Mr. Toranaga?” he called as he approached. “Lewis Themps. I believe your parents told you I was coming.”

Peter paused his conversation with the woman to look at him.

“They did,” he replied. “The tracker, right? My mother said you might be able to give us a sense of the direction Charlie was heading when he fled.”

“I might,” Lewis confirmed. Another slight sniff, just to catalogue. Peter smelled of burnt elmwood; not too different from his parents. Interesting. He turned his head towards the boy. “You must be James,” he said, mostly to hide another inhalation. “Your grandmother mentioned you.” Strange. This one barely seemed to have a scent at all. Just the barest trace of ozone. Like a thundercloud.

The boy gave him a half-smile.

“Hey,” he said, his voice quiet. “Thank you for helping us with this. It means a lot.”

Lewis shrugged robotically.

“It’s fine. Just doing your grandparents a favor. Not like I’m doing it for free.”

‘Do you know? Do you know that they’ve killed a man for you? Would you care?’

“They said you’d need an initial scent to find my son,” said the woman to Peter’s left, pulling Lewis’ attention back into the present. She produced a zip-lock bag from a pocket of her jeans. “Will this do?”

Lewis could tell it would before he even looked at it. The thing fairly reeked with that unusual coral and saffron scent. It only intensified when he pried the bag open.

“Hair?” he mused aloud, faintly curious. He shrugged, then zipped the packet closed again. “This will do.”  He took another deep breath of the ocean air, assessing. “He’s been gone for a little over a day now. If you give me a couple minutes, I can tell you the direction he took off-”

“That ought to be more useful on the other side of the gap,” Peter forestalled him. “Nothing to track on this side of things.”

“I’m sorry?” Lewis asked, a touch confused. “This side of what?”

The question raised eyebrows from the other two adults. They shared a glance, before looking back at him.

“Of the dimensional gulf,” Charlie’s mother clarified. “My son escaped off-planet, Mr. Themps. I thought you’d been informed.”

There was silence for a time at that.

“Ah,” Lewis said eventually. “I think Tsuru left that part out.”


It took a while for the departure to be made ready. Whoever this Charlie kid was, he had a hell of a search party mustering for him. Every handful of minutes brought new faces through the portal; the crowd of those ushering supplies through from the U.S swelling from a few dozen to at least three times that number.

Lewis found himself sitting on the sidelines, observing their preparations passively, his own supplies still slung about his back. The government had never made him comfortable. They always demanded that they be in control. It made a man uneasy. He kept his distance.

“Hey,” said a familiar voice at his shoulder, accompanied by a whiff of ozone. “Mind if I sit with you?”

Lewis was more startled by that than he’d have wanted to admit. Most people were too pungent to sneak up on him. He didn’t show it, though. He simply shrugged.

“Sure,” he murmured. “Something on your mind?”

James Toranaga didn’t really have the look of someone ready to search a foreign planet. He was a city boy, through and through. Long jeans, a sweater, and expensive shoes, his only concession to the climate, or even the thought of the mission was a small supply pouch, fastened at his waist. It was fair enough, Lewis supposed. The kid wasn’t taking part in the search beyond observing the setup. James plopped himself down on the sand, and didn’t reply. Lewis waited for a while, then went back to watching the crowd, not really seeing them.

Eventually, the boy seemed to finish marshalling his thoughts.

“You’re a smell guy, right?” the boy asked. “You track stuff with your nose? Like one of those dogs they use to find cocaine?”

Lewis couldn’t help but snicker.

“Pretty much, yeah.”

James nodded at that, his expression thoughtful.

“So… I’ve got a friend, Tasha. And another one, Casper. Both of em got kidnapped by a guy with smell powers a while back. Way Casper explained it, that guy kinda sounds like you.”

Lewis winced at that.

‘Here it is. Here’s where you start being a Toranaga.’

To his credit, he didn’t lie; for the most part, at least.

“That was me,” he admitted. He cast an eye at James. “I’d rather you didn’t spread it around too much, but yeah. Your grandparents only found out about me because Tasha told them who I was. That’s how they got in touch. They got me out from under the Family’s control.”

James didn’t answer, too busy staring at the sand between his feet.

Lewis thought back to the events of ten months prior and chuckled.

“Now that you mention it, though. When they sent me after Tasha the second time, I couldn’t track her. Her trail just kind of vanished off of the rooftop where she dumped her armor. As far as I could tell, she got herself rescued by someone who barely had a scent. Sounds a lot like you, huh?”

Perhaps smartly, James neither confirmed nor denied his assertion. Instead, he cocked his head a little.

“I don’t have a scent?” he asked.

“Not to my nose,” Lewis shrugged, tapping his nose with an index finger. “You’re what, thirteen, fourteen?”

“Thirteen,” the boy confirmed.

“Right.” Lewis nodded. “Most teenagers sweat a lot. It makes them easy enough to track. But you? Honestly, you just smell like stormclouds.”

“Huh,” the boy muttered to himself. “Badass.”

Lewis chuckled. He went back to watching the crowd, pretending not to notice as James surreptitiously lifted his forearm to his nose.

“Okay,” he said eventually. “Now’s my turn to ask something.”

James glanced up at him.

“Uh. Sure. What’s up?”

“Who is this Charlie kid?” he asked, gesturing out at workers accumulating their ever growing mountain of supplies along the beach. “What the hell makes him important enough for this?” He saw the flicker of anger in James’ eyes, and raised a hand. “Don’t get me wrong. I get he’s your friend. But what kind of kid gets a search party of seventy people willing to cross dimensions to look for him?”

The boy looked a little stuffed at that. He thought it through.

“I mean, he’s a portal maker,” he said eventually. “That’s pretty rare, right? They probably want him back cuz they know he could be handy some day.”

Lewis huffed at that.

“Yeah. Sounds like them. Always looking out for tactical interests.”

If he’d been expecting James to be offended, he’d have been surprised. The boy simply nodded.

“Yeah. Especially someone like Charlie. He makes portals between planets nowadays.”

That comment derailed Lewis a tad. He hadn’t thought of it like that.

“Fuck,” he muttered. “I don’t like that. Not one bit.”

“Why not?”

Lewis groaned.

“There’s such a thing as too much power to give a child. The kind of power I wouldn’t even trust with a grown adult. Now we’re dealing with a boy who can dimension hop at will. Whole universe at his fingertips. That’s not healthy. That’s a supervillain waiting to happen.”

James frowned.

“That’s kinda harsh. What’s that say about me? I’m stronger than Charlie, dude.”

‘And look how your family turned out.’

Lewis valued his life too much to say that. Instead, he shrugged.

“Look around you, kid. You’re sitting on a deserted island, watching a paramilitary team getting ready to raid a planet, and talking to a man who used to hunt people for the criminal underworld. Does that sound like healthy thirteen year old stuff to you?”

“I handle it okay,” James replied, his tone defensive. “I’m healthy.”

“I’m sure you are,” Lewis allowed, not really believing it. “But just look at the rest of the world. Father grew up with powers way too big for him. Look how he turned out. And then there’s the shitshow that’s your family-” he cut himself off. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have said that.”

James just glared at him at that.

“My family’s awesome,” he muttered. “They love me.”

Lewis grunted, turning his eyes back toward the crowd, pretending he had nothing more to say. That seemed to annoy James even more.

“What,” the boy asked derisively. “You think they don’t? Cuz you’re just flat wrong there, guy.”

“Of course they love you,” Lewis replied, nettled. “I know that for damn sure. But where do you think that ends, huh? How far d’you think they’d go?”

“As far as they had to,” James answered, his eyes hard. “That’s what family means.”

Lewis shook his head.

“And that’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “I don’t think they’d stop at that. I think they’d take things too far for you.”

To his credit, the summation gave James pause.

“… Wouldn’t you, though?” he asked. “Wouldn’t everyone do that if they could?”

Lewis sighed.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Only difference is, people like you are strong enough to do it.”

James didn’t respond to that, although it looked as if he wanted to. He frowned, his gaze turning towards the waves. 

Lewis shrugged. At least the kid was thinking about it. He got up to leave.

“Can I ask a favor?” James asked. 

Lewis sighed. The Toranaga family had a bad track record when it came to favors.

“Depends,” he muttered, turning back to face the boy. “What favor?”

James reached down to unbuckle the pouch from about his waist.

“Charlie’s trouble,” he said. “Cuz you’re right. He’s super strong. I’m not sure you’ll be able to bring him in. Even with my family there.” He held out the pouch. “I want you to give him this. If you find him, I mean.”

Lewis took the pouch and unzipped it, curious. There wasn’t much inside. A couple lunchbox snacks and a Superman comic, forcefully folded to make it fit the confines of the space.

“A care package?” he asked.

James shrugged.

“Like I said, I don’t think we can bring him home if he doesn’t want to be there. This is to remind him what home is.”

Lewis smiled at that.

‘Maybe you‘re a good kid after all.’

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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.


“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?”


“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.


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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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.


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. 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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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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