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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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.’