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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Catharsis: 2.7

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Hunter:

The hunt was not, in the end, a particularly difficult one, just very time consuming. The girl, as it turned out, spent a lot of time outside, her scent twisting and winding around the city, bending into alleyways, crossing fences and occasionally disappearing entirely where she had leaped up onto the tops of buildings, whereupon he was forced either to find a way up in order to regain her trail, or to wander the streets until he could relocate her trail again. After an hour of searching by this deeply frustrating method, he found an alternative. A few times in his search, he had found points where the girl’s scent intersected with another. A young boy, not the one who had accompanied her in the escape last night, his scent was far stronger, more present. Given how frequently the two came into contact, and the length of time their scents seemed to have mingled with one another, it seemed more than likely that the two were friends. If the two were friends, then the boy would likely know where she lived. Questioning him shouldn’t be difficult, and if, for some reason, he failed, then he could send in the kids.

The moment he shifted his focus to the boy, he began to notice the frequency with which he had been coming across the scent. The kid walked these streets regularly. That was not unusual, he supposed; most children lived by a set routine, after all, but most confined themselves to a few set paths. This boy, on the other hand, had his scent scattered over more than a dozen streets, most of the stretches pointing in the same direction. There was a school over that way, if he remembered right, a private school. Good, that should make things easier. Private school children tended to trust authority more, having been raised in the understanding that such people were there to help them. He turned, began to make his way towards the school at a light jog, and soon enough, picked up the boy’s trail again. This one was more recent, much more recent. Less than an hour old, at a guess. He picked up his pace. The school day wasn’t due to start for another half hour, perhaps he’d have a chance to talk to the boy before classes began.

Casper:

Casper was tired. A late night spent worrying over Tasha and how she planned to deal with James wasn’t exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep. He sat on the school steps, in front of the large glass double doors to the middle school building, his head in his hands while he waited for the other students to begin arriving. The man, at least, he certainly felt like a man, didn’t draw his attention immediately, it was not particularly odd to feel an unfamiliar set of emotions on the campus. A new teacher, a contractor, or maybe just one of the teachers who spent most of their time in the high-school side of the place.

The only thing that struck him as particularly odd about this man was his focus. This early in the morning, most people, even the adults about to start their work day, were still gripped by the lull of sleep to some small degree. This man, however, was focused and awake in spite of the hour; attentive. Casper glanced up, curious as to what had this man’s attention. It didn’t take him long to locate the presence, there weren’t very many people around yet besides the teachers. The man stood at the school gate, a thick brown coat slung around him to protect from the morning chill. The man was staring at him, his face blank, a touch of curiosity in his mind. Casper averted his eyes, a little uncomfortable, and tried to ignore the man’s attention. The newcomer, for his part, began to approach, crossing the near empty parking lot at a light jog.

Casper shifted slightly from his position in front of the doors, not that he’d been blocking them, but the gesture of getting out of the way was one that, in his experience, helped forestall interaction, and he found the idea of a grown man staring at him with that kind of focus more than a little creepy.

He stared at his feet as the man approached, quietly hoping the guy would just walk past him. The footsteps continued to grow louder, and then stopped. Through his power, even without looking, Casper could tell that the man was beside him, attention still fully focused on him. He sighed, well, maybe the guy just needed directions. He turned his gaze to the stranger, fixing a smile to his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but the stranger beat him to it.

“Young man, my name’s officer Lewis Themps, New York police department. I need to ask you a few questions about a friend of yours.” He pulled a small leather article from a pocket, and flipped it open, showing him a police ID.

Casper felt a stone drop out of his stomach. Fuck. This was bad. Either Tasha had actually attracted the attention of the police, or this was something far, far worse, and it had found its way to him.

“Now,” Officer Lewis continued. “Your friend caused a bit of an incident last night with a known criminal organization. She’s in a lot of trouble, because now these people want her dead. I’m going to need you to tell me where she is so that we can get her somewhere safe until this blows over.”

Casper listened, his power focused near completely on the man, trying to detect a lie. Nothing. The emotions were too calm, too businesslike. No, if he was going to figure out whether the man was lying, he’d need to draw attention to it, make him focus on his own deception actively, and check the response to that.

“… You promise you’re a cop?” He asked, trying to make his voice small and scared sounding. Not too difficult to do, he just needed to express the fear he was really feeling.

The stranger smiled, a tiny note of satisfaction playing through him as he fished the badge out again.

“I promise, kid. Now, you gonna tell me where I can find her?”

Casper almost had to hold back a groan. The emotional response there could just as likely mean that he was a cop, or that he wasn’t; mere satisfaction that he now had the kid’s confidence. He tried again.

“…I don’t want anyone to hurt her.” Again, he tried to make himself sound small. The man’s expression held steady, but mentally, he flinched, a touch of guilt, a momentary regret. Casper swore internally. Still not sure if this guy was a cop or not, but whatever he was doing, he was clearly under the impression that it would bring Tasha to harm. Well, for now, the path was clear, he had to convince this guy that he didn’t know a damn thing, best play up the victim card, try to lie as little as possible. “I-I don’t know much,” he mumbled. “I-I saw her on my way home once… She was beating up some guys… I ran away. A few days after, she came to find me. S-she said she could help me.”

“Help with what?” The man asked, his voice kind as he sat himself down on the step alongside the boy.

Casper hesitated. Much as this stranger was a threat, the possibility still existed that he was a real cop, and that telling him about his dad could cause some very real trouble.

“… Personal stuff.” He answered after a time. “She said she could beat someone up for me… I told her no.”

“Wanted to deal with it yourself?” The man asked, raising a hand to stroke the poorly shaved stubble that lined his jaw. “I can respect that.” The words came out accompanied by a surprising degree of sincerity. Casper wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about the idea of this guy genuinely liking him.

Casper nodded, then continued. “I… I don’t know where she lives. We just meet up every now and then… talk about stuff.”

“Could you get her to meet up with you today?” The man asked, his calm disposition giving no trace of the spike of eagerness that had begun to flow through him.

“… I don’t know,” he answered. God, why did this all have to be so confusing? On the one hand, he didn’t want to lead the guy to Tasha, but on the other, if he really was a cop, then he didn’t want his dad getting word that he’d said no to a policeman. “I-I’d need to ask her first… I don’t think she’d like it.”

A flash of annoyance, quickly hidden, a level of determination. “Young man, if these people find her, they will hurt her very badly. Do you want that?”

Casper nodded. “Yeah, but what if you’re not really a cop? Or what if you are, but you’re really a bad cop, and you’re going to tell them where to find her?”

More frustration. “Heh, kid, I think maybe you watch a little too much tv. I prom-”

An idea flashed into Casper’s mind, and he snapped his fingers together, grinning. “I know! What if you take me to the police station? Then I’ll know that you’re really a cop, and I’ll know I can help you cuz there’ll be a bunch of other cops around who can hear what I’m saying!”

The man’s annoyance deepened, another flash of anger, a touch of fear. So, then, probably not a cop.

“You’re making this way more complicated than it needs to be-”

Casper made a show of digging a hand into his pocket for his phone, his hands shaking slightly.

“I could even take a picture of you and ask my dad about it. He works with the police, so he could tell me. Then you could come back after sch-” The man batted the phone away with the back of his hand, the polite facade dropping away from his face.

“Word of advice, kid.” He murmured, his voice even. “That friend of yours? She pissed off some very dangerous people. Right now, you’re only getting in my way, and you’re lucky about that, cuz I don’t like hurting kids. But if you manage to get in their way too? Then, you’ll be in trouble, and the next person they send won’t be so likely to just look the other way when some kid gets too clever. Remember that.” With that, he stood up, straightened his coat, and walked away, leaving Casper shaking where he sat, trying desperately not to cry.

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Catharsis: 2.6

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Family:

The woman leaned against the shattered window, her fingers clenching occasionally against the scarred wooden frame. Marcus watched from his position against the wall, trying to figure out how best to approach her. He allowed himself a momentary irritation that dealing with Father’s dispatches was his job now instead of Samson’s. The older man had busied himself in calming the customers and seeing the children back to bed, leaving him to deal with the pissed off superhuman.

“So,” he ventured eventually. “What now, Lara?”

“Now?” She asked, her tone clipped, not looking at him. “Now we find the girl. Much as it pains me to admit, she beat me in a fair fight. She passed the entrance test. Now we just need to get her to Father. The tracker’s still active in New York, right? I don’t feel like waiting for her to come back here again.”

“I’ll contact him,” Marcus nodded. “Is the main family paying, or is this one on the New York branch?”

“We’ll cover the cost,” she allowed. “Looks like you’ll have enough to deal with for now getting the building repaired.”

“Yeah,” Marcus laughed. “You know, before I was put in charge here, I used to wish I’d wind up with powers like that. Now I just look at the walls and see a pile of repair bills.”

Lara let out a short, forced laugh, her knuckles still clenched hard against the window frame.

“You’re not alone in that. When I was still training, Father used to say I should write a receipt every time I opened my mouth, just in case.”

The two were silent for a while, her staring out of the window, him gazing cautiously at her back. After a time, she sighed.

“Just let me be angry for a while, kay? I’ll stay here till I’m calm, best for Father’s representative to not be furious in front of the children. You go call the tracker.”

For a moment, Marcus considered contesting the issue, trying to talk things out. He decided against it. He pushed away from the wall, pulling his phone from his pocket as he stepped towards the open doorway.

“She was gonna break my legs,” Lara murmured, Marcus wasn’t entirely sure if she was speaking to herself or not. “She’s gonna pay for that before Father gets her.”

“She threatened the little ones,” he replied quietly, his broken hand emitting a momentary ache as the fingers reflexively tried to clench against the bandages. “You’re right. She’ll pay.”


Tasha:

The girl let out a hiss of pain as the knife blade pierced the meat of her lower leg, the flesh parting with a slight puff of oddly savory smelling steam. She tried to ignore the sting as she pulled the handle to the side, carving a shallow trench in the skin a few inches below her knee. The bullet had gone in from the side, and, as far as she could tell, had been stopped short by bone, leaving it buried a few millimeters beneath the skin, while at the same time, nearly an inch from the point of entry. After some consideration, Tasha had decided that she’d rather just cut it out that try rooting around inside the bullet hole for the slug, so now she sat on the small, largely unused kitchen counter beside the stove that she had been using to heat the knife. She wasn’t entirely sure whether her body had anything to really fear from infection, but she figured she may as well warm the blade just in case.

After a few moments of work and an uncomfortable degree of pain, she felt the blade catch on something hard and jagged. She tossed the knife in the sink, and reached down with her other hand, placing a finger on either side of the fresh incision, pulling the hole open while the fingers of her other hand fumbled inside of it, grasping the exposed section of the slug and tugging it free with a grunt. She brought it up to her eye, examining it closely. The soft  metal was warped and cracked, but, as far as she could tell, largely intact. She tossed it into the sink after the knife and pushed herself down off of the counter, taking the landing largely on her uninjured leg. Experimentally, she pressed her other foot to the ground, testing the damage. It hurt, but the pain was a little better now. She tried walking, and managed a decent limp, heading into the small bathroom to wash the wound clean under the shower tap, stopping briefly to fend off Maxie on the way through; he was a good boy, but she’d picked him up too late to really train him at all, and she groaned as he jumped up on her, his paws pushing her off-balance against the hallway wall as he tried and failed to lick her face. She pushed him away with a groan and allowed him a grudging tickle behind the ears, sending him back to his room, tail wagging, before finishing her journey to the bathroom.

The bad guys had powers. Well no shit. Tasha chuckled angrily to herself, trying to ignore the sting as the cold water soaked between the torn flesh of the injury, momentarily regretting not having warmed the water first. Of course the bad guys would have powers. It made sense, in retrospect. If superpowers were just getting handed out to random kids, it made sense that some of those kids would grow up letting it go to their heads. She allowed herself a grin. At least she’d beat the bitch. If it hadn’t been for the dickbag with the gun, she let out a sigh. Losing, as it turned out, was not fun, and it felt doubly shitty because she’d overcome the main threat without issue. It was cheating. It was unfair.

Her phone pinged, pulling her out of her lamentations for a moment. She dug in her pocket, pulling out the device, almost out of power, and checked the screen.

‘You gonna be okay? James says he wants to help you out. Cas.’

Tasha gazed at the screen for a few moments, then sighed. She’d lost tonight because she was outnumbered. She had no doubts there, but James was twelve. If she was going to be a hero, then she needed to find another way to win, something that didn’t put a kid in danger, let alone a kid whose power probably wouldn’t even be much use in a fight. Seeing the phone battery tick down another percent, she typed in a quick response.

‘I’m good. Heal quick. Phone dying. I’ll talk him out of it.’

After a few seconds, a new message came up on the screen with a ping.

‘Thanks.’

Any response she might have made was cut short by the phone shutting off. She chuckled. It was nice to see the little guy with a friend his own age. He was a bit more delicate than her. He needed other people. Tasha shut off the tap, found a rag, and mopped herself dry, before finding an unused shirt to wrap around the wound. Then, she limped back into the main room, flopped down on the couch, and went to sleep. As she began to fade, she felt something warm against her stomach as Maxie clambered up alongside her, resting his head against her side.


Hunter:

The cell phone alarm went off at six AM, the familiar staccato sound of piano chords cut short after a few seconds by an irritated flick of his thumb. Must have forgotten to turn it off. He hated that alarm. Not unusual, perhaps. He supposed most people likely hated the sound of their alarms after a time. That didn’t matter for now, though. He’d already been up for hours. It was always best to rise early when he had a new target to locate, before the movement of the day diluted the scents his targets left behind, making them all that much harder to track.

He began at the street below a broken window, from which he had been assured that the girl in question had thrown herself the night before. Sure enough, there was a scent there. A powerful one, full of the telltale notes of blood and sweat and dog hair. He chuckled to himself. This girl needed to take better care of herself. The chuckle was cut short as he remembered just who he was hunting her for. Knowing what the Family tended to do to kids, it wasn’t particularly likely that she’d be neglecting her hygiene for very much longer. He suppressed a shudder at the implications of the idea, and pushed it from his mind. It wasn’t that he begrudged them his services, but he had to admit, the Family weren’t exactly his first choice of customer.

He shrugged. Best not to think about that sort of thing. He knelt down slightly, allowing himself to get a better whiff of the target’s scent. It was distinctive, easy to track. He followed it across the road to where one of the children had said they saw the target jump to a rooftop. The front entrance to the place was closed, but that wasn’t much of a concern. He made his way across to one of the buildings alongside it, and found a fire escape. It was easy enough to jump up to, and he ascended, bringing himself a little above level with the roof the girl had jumped to. He climbed up onto the handrail, then launched himself across. He made it, narrowly, hitting the surface in a roll before coming to his feet, dusting himself off. Better remember to give himself more height next time he tried that. The scent was nearby, a strong concentration, collected in a solid line leading from one end of the building to the other. Ah, so the girl had been bleeding as she made the journey, then. He followed to the ledge where the scent ended. Easy enough to guess she’d tried jumping again. He was surprised she’d made it if she’d been bleeding that badly. By the direction of the blood trail, he made a guess as to the building she’d gone for and nodded, before descending back to ground level with relative ease.

The second ascent was easier than the first. The building was open this time, and he was able to make his way up to the roof via the stairs. Again, the scent was easy to discern. It was everywhere around this rooftop, collected on small, torn lumps of metal sheeting and foil. He picked one up, took a sniff, examined it. Was this meant to be armor? He laughed. Not that it would be useless. Hell, maybe it’d even be enough to stop a low impact round, but judging by the blood, and how the armor had been discarded, he had to assume the gun she’d been shot with was a little more than expected. He moved to the edge of the roof, and began to walk around the perimeter, searching for the point where the scent was strongest, where she was most likely to have jumped.

It was after almost ten minutes of searching like this that he realized he’d made more than one lap of the rooftop, and had found nothing. So she hadn’t jumped. Had she gone inside? No. He would have smelled her on the way up. He searched closer. There were other scents, a few individuals who must have been around in the last few days or so, their odor mixed largely with tobacco smoke and food. He needed something more recent, an explanation. He moved to the center of the area, where the majority of the armor pieces lay, and took another sniff. His eyes widened slightly. The scent went up into the air. Surprising. So she had jumped, after all. How, though? Some kind of glider? Unlikely, but possible. There was something else there, though. Something confusing. Another scent. Male, and young, but fainter, much fainter. At a guess, he would have said it was days old, maybe even a week, but it intertwined closely with that of the girl, rising up into the air with hers in such a way that it could not be a coincidence. What an unusual boy, to have such a weak scent. He grunted. Well, if she’d gotten away by air, he had no way of pursuing her from here. Best to retrace his steps.

He made his way back to the Family building, and stood outside the entrance, taking another breath. If he couldn’t track the girl by her escape route, best to track her by the approach instead. He set off at a jog, interrupted briefly by his phone’s secondary alarm going off at six twenty.

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