Escapism: 3.5

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Strangers:

The gate bloomed forth in the shadows, hidden well below the urban sprawl that spanned from end to end of the human metropolis. They emerged in a tunnel, underground, the gloom around them near enough all encompassing. By the light flooding forth from the other side of the gate, they could see the iron tracks that lay along the uneven ground. The man knew by experience that these structures were for moving great carts of men and women from one end of the vast city to the other. He chuckled. It was such a novel idea, that a being could be so weak as to need the aid of metal for travel.

His companion silenced him, a motion of a hand alerting him to a new danger. The plan had failed. The enchantments surrounding the city stretched down into these tunnels as well. The humans were alerted. They would be mobilizing soon. The male swore. It had taken so much effort to work a gate precise enough to end in one of these tunnels, all for nothing.

It had once been so easy. The humans had lacked the organization to pose a threat to their hunters, the few mages they possessed with the skills to find them before the job was done being too weak on their own to fight them. The male remembered those times, when it hadn’t been necessary to hunt in pairs.

The female guided them forwards through the gloom, her ears attuned to the sounds in the dark, seeing blind, as the bats did. They moved quickly, intent on being far distant when the human alphas came to defend their precious herd.

It wasn’t long before the male saw lights distant in the tunnel, a platform of raised stone, built of the single, smooth hewn stonelike blocks that had so fascinated him in recent years, its surfaces tiled in gleaming white and dirty grey alike, painted in garish yellows with no heed to aesthetic or craft.

Before he had a chance to draw close, the female held out a hand to block him, signalling in silence, barely visible in the sheer darkness of the man made cave. They were too late. The place had been emptied of its normal inhabitants, and now stood guarded by two figures, each garbed in cold grey, their faces covered by cumbersome masks of metal and glass. He almost laughed. Why so few of them? Perhaps this tunnel had more than one terminus nearby.

He nodded, slowing his pace, the female doing the same in front of him. Best to smash through this small defence and be gone before reinforcements could come. The female readied her spell in silence while the male stood watch. She was the one more skilled in striking without warning. He left the guards to her.

Then, the plan went awry. One of the watchers looked up from his task and, it would seem, somehow caught a glimpse of them both in the darkness. He let out a deep bark of noise toward his companion, who immediately turned to run, digging a hand into a pocket of his coat.

The female let it loose her spell with all the force she desired as the male charged, firing forth a dozen lines of black, ichorus fire from her palms, the weapons spearing through the dark towards their foes, both the standing guard, and the fleeing.

The standing guard raised his hands with a cry as he moved himself into the path of the shots aimed for his companion, pulling forth a bubble of some transparent force. The darts met his shield with a screech like the call of a hunting bird, and the dome collapsed, the man thrown against the tiled wall hard enough to send shards of it tumbling to the ground around him. He fell to the floor in a heap, unmoving.

The fleeing man pulled forth a pair of devices from his garment as he ran, tapping one furiously with his thumb, tossing the other behind himself as he began to ascend the stairs.

The thrown device was an odd thing, cylindrical, covered in grooves and lines and buttons. The male ignored it as he ran, and was caught as it began to spew forth a cloud of thin foul, smelling smoke of a sort that stung his eyes and caught harshly in his lungs. He readied a counter without even thinking, and shielded himself with a gust of wind, pushing the smoke clear of him. He coughed painfully, and looked up at the fleeing man, angry. The air here was putrid enough already.

The fleeing guard gave the device in his hand a few more desperate taps, before flinging it up the stairwell away from himself. Then, he turned, fear in his eyes, to face his pursuer.

The male was angry. His eyes stung, his lungs burned. This human world had pushed enough indignities on him already, and this little speck of a being now had the audacity to add a further insult. He raised his hands, building his power in his palms.

The human shook slightly as he did the same, some smoky, viscous force bubbling to the surface of his skin like a man become mist. The male chuckled. This would not take long. He raised his palms to strike, when he felt a tug at his back, something grasping him about the middle, pulling him. His feet left the steps, his spell flickering out of being as his focus was forced to falter, before that same unseen force slammed him down against the ground with a sound like thunder itself. It was all he could do to shield himself from the blow.

The male scrambled to his feet, furious, turning back towards the platform. There, separating him from the female, stood a lone man, beside a strange, lightless portal leading into a dim room. The newcomer frowned, his face set in hard lines of rage and, much to the male’s surprise, spoke to them in the hunters’ tongue.

“You should not be here.”


Peter:

This wasn’t good. The hunters were working in a pair. Pearson was down and Greys, bless his soul, wasn’t powerful enough to be anything more than a brief distraction to their enemies. He knew his limits. He was smart enough to handle one hunter, if he was lucky, but two at once? That was the sort of challenge he happily left to his father.

They were an odd pair, he thought. The male dressed in a badly faded denim jacket, over a torn t-shirt for a concert some twenty years out of date, his pants ripped and scuffed. So, they’d started stealing clothes now? Fantastic.

He glanced behind himself for a moment at the female, dressed with a similarly apparent lack of awareness, before returning his gaze to the male. He knew Jackie was watching through the portal. She’d warn him if the female made a move. Neither foe did.

“… You speak our tongue,” The male murmured, surprised, cocking his head slightly to the side, his long hair spilling carelessly over a shoulder. “How?”

Peter ignored him.

“You should not be here.” He repeated, reaching down to his belt and pulling his flask free, before lifting it to his lips.

The male tried to stop him, raising a hand and sending a plume of some white, crackling energy towards it, but he deflected it, batting the bolt of energy aside with the palm of his free hand, expending far more energy on doing so than he would have liked. It was necessary, though. Hunters cared about power. He needed to make his defence look effortless. The bolt struck the tiled floor, and didn’t stop, carving a glowing white hole into the ground for who knew how far. Behind him, he heard the female attempt something similar, and he heard the grunt of effort as Jackie shielded him. He had to be quick here.

He took a swig from the flask and winced. Bitter. Way too bitter.

“What was that?” The female asked, on edge, her voice radiating suspicion and disgust.

Again, he ignored the words.

“You are launching an unprovoked attack on the citizens of New York,” he murmured, allowing a hint of his anger to bubble up to the surface in his words. “If you continue, I will hold you here until reinforcements arrive, and then we will crush you with all the fury you kidnapping bastards deserve. You have ten seconds to leave this place, or I will rain down fire upon you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Reinforcements due in forty seconds,” he heard Jackie murmur in english. He nodded. Behind the male, he saw Greys pull out a grenade, and revised his opinion of the man. Momentary distractions could be very handy, really. He flicked a hand towards Pearson’s unconscious form, shielding him as best he could without it being obvious, and then simply stood there, waiting.

The female laughed haughtily. The male, for his part, looked concerned.

“And how exactly does a human plan to hold us here?” She asked, her voice laden with contempt.

Peter didn’t answer. Instead, he jerked his wrist to the side easily. It was a small motion, easy to dismiss, but Greys knew what it meant. He pulled the pin on the grenade, held it in his hand for a moment, and tossed it down the stairs, before setting off at a run.

Peter didn’t waste a second. He turned towards the female and raised a hand, expressing out all the energy he’d been storing since the conversation had begun, and let loose a bolt of lightning towards her. She raised her hands to defend, just a moment too slow, and it caught her around the middle, flinging her backwards against the subway wall. He wondered how much damage had made it past her barriers. Nowhere near enough, probably.

Behind him, the male was doubtless readying some counter move, but was caught off guard when the grenade went off by his feet, flinging him across the platform, wisps of his own dissipating attack forming contrails behind him as he flew. The shockwave hit Peter too, but he was ready for it, and even though he stumbled, he felt Jackie’s arm reach out of the portal to hold him steady. The male landed in a sprawl, confusion and rage playing out on his face in equal measure. Peter struck him with a telekinetic blast just as he’d used to pull him back from Greys before. He wished he could do something stronger, but his energy was expended for the moment on his strike against the female.

The male took the blast halfway through an attempt to stand, and was struck against the paneled side of the terminal with a painful sounding crack. He growled, glaring at his opponent with a raw, pure fury.

Overwhelm. Peter reminded himself. You can’t win here. Just hold them down long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

He glanced to the female, already recovering from the lightning strike, her hands raising for some kind of blast.

“Jackie!” He cried, running towards the male in a dead sprint. “Cover me!”

He could almost see it playing out in his mind’s eye; the female calling forth a spray of some powerful, dangerous magic, only to be deflected with the last of his partner’s energy. Right on time, he heard the detonation behind him, just as expected, followed by the loud, rattling blasts of Jackie’s counterattack. He spared a single breath for a chuckle. Jackie relied more heavily on guns than any mage he knew.

The male was on his feet before Peter reached him. But they both knew he didn’t have the time to ready a spell with the power needed to stop him, so instead, the enemy drew his knife; a slim, greenish blade that seemed to shift and slide through the air like a mirage. Peter dipped a hand into a pocket for his knuckle dusters, his other hand going for his gun, fumbling, not enough time.

The enemy lunged at him, swinging the blade in a wide arc at chest height and he ducked, crouching beneath it before bringing his metal clad fist up into his opponent’s jaw with all the force he could muster. The male barely even flinched, twisting the knife in his grip and swinging it down towards his side. He shifted back, out of the way, but the blade moved, the shifting, mirage like echoes of its edge catching against his jacket, far more solid than it should have been. He felt a sharp pain as the blade carved a shallow trench in his side, and ignored it. On impulse, he pooled his gathered energy into his leg, reinforcing it as he pivoted on one foot, making use of the momentum of his dodge to slam a fierce kick into the enemy’s midsection. He felt something crunch satisfyingly underfoot, and saw the male wince in genuine pain.

The victory was short lived, as his enemy pushed forward with his free hand, coated, he realized belatedly, with a bubble of kinetic force. The hand didn’t even make contact with him, and yet the blast sent him slamming back some thirty feet against a pillar, struggling to keep his feet. He coughed, the air forced from his lungs, momentarily choking him.

From this new vantage point, he could see the portal, Jackie barely holding her own behind it, resorting to dodging to the side and allowing the female’s attacks to strike the wall of her office as she emptied shot after shot against her with her pistols.

The male growled, barely audible, as he stared towards Peter, massaging his side with a hand. He looked tired, physically, at least. Peter unclipped his flask, and took another gulp. Goddamn, that stuff was disgusting; but it did its job. He was renewed.

The male charged, knife held ready in one hand, the force held cloaking his other hand no doubt charged to its very peak. Peter snorted. With his newfound reserves, he extended a palm towards the male, letting loose a barrage of telekinetic energy that contained all the power he had available.

The wave struck the male dead on, flinging him backwards with enough force to send a deep fissure radiating not only through the tiles of the station, but through the thick concrete on which it was built. The knife flew from his grip, and landed on the train track, the blade hitting a rail and carving through it like nothing more than soft clay.

The male landed hard on his feet, unsteady, then dropped to his knees, and vomited. The female stopped, mid strike, staring at Peter, a little scared.

“Do you really want to continue?” He asked, making an effort to stand straight, despite the aches in his back and side, and making a show of dusting off his suit. “Because I have far more force to bring to bear here.”

For a long moment, neither intruder moved, staring at him, weighing their options.

Internally, Peter was praying for this to end. He could continue, he knew. He had enough tricks up his sleeve to drag this fight on for a long time, but Jackie was spent. They’d wasted too much of her energy on first the portal, and then on holding off the female. Every second that this continued was another chance for her to die. They stood there for a time, in stalemate, before a single sound sent them all into motion. The pounding of feet from the other side of the portal. Jackie’s reinforcements were here.

The male surged to his feet at speed, his injuries apparently forgotten, and made towards Peter at a run. In response, he abandoned his attempt at force, and simply focused all his power on shielding himself. They were about to have all the force they needed. The female was making some movements with her hands, a series of words flowing thick and fast from her mouth, even as a stream of agents began to flood from Jackie’s portal, guns levelled, spells ready. Then, all was madness.

Birds, hundreds of them, began to flow forth from the space around the female, swooping and screeching and filling the confined space with feathers and claws and chaos. Between them, Peter caught glimpses of what was happening. Agents trying to beat the things away, Jackie trying to close her portal while a few who had made it through clawed and pecked at her hair. He felt something thud against his chest, forcing its way past him. There were too many. He couldn’t see. He needed to fix that.

He gathered up his reserve, and fired out another blast, aimed in every direction at once, too weak to dislodge a grown man, but, he hoped, enough to force back the birds. It worked, partly. There was a mess of squawks and cries and crunching sounds as the hunting birds were blown away, striking walls or floors, or simply being flung out over the tracks. It didn’t catch all of them, but it cleared them enough that he could see. The intruders were gone. He swore.

As the agents began doing what little they could to corral what remained of the swarm, even as they escaped into the subway lines and up the stairway by the dozens, he pulled out his phone, and dialed a number. It rang for only a few seconds, before the man on the other end picked up.

“Dad,” he muttered into it, his voice tight. “Get Mom and come here now. We’ve got elves loose in New York.”

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Bonus chapter one, Bex.

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December first, seven years ago:

There is a creaking. Far from earth. Far from any realm humans have traversed, there is a creaking. A gate, built in ages long past by beings long since gone reverberates with the sound. Buried somewhere deep, the doorway flung into a void beyond the bounds of creation, it rattles. The thing on the other side is slow. Unused to dwelling in a realm where time has but one direction. It is angry, and the gate rattles again, ancient barriers quaking under the force of its blows. It is hungry, but that is alright. If it can hold on, it will soon have a chance to feast. It was their smell that awoke it. A populace grown beyond any conceivable measure. Each one small and weak on their own, not enough to sate it, but in these numbers? They could sustain it for an age. The gate rattles again, and a lock snaps. Good. Only four more to go.

The sound of the break is loud and violent, carrying up through the emptiness, and reaching the ears of a lone sentry. The noise awakens a fear in her, but she is strong. She carries out her duty, and sends warning along lines established millenia ago, readying her people. She is a watcher, assigned to guard the gates since time immemorial, a task performed so long that she no longer remembers what she was before. None of them do, really. Her people spread out, giving their signs, spreading the news to anyone and everyone they meet.

‘A beast awakens.’

It is primordial, powerful, one of the first things that lived upon the many worlds, when magic was young, but it has not moved in an age. Its muscles ache. Its body is slow to respond. It spent too long asleep. The gate shatters, and the barriers break with such force that it echoes through the minds of every magician in the adjacent worlds. Any whom the watchers did not inform, the societies that were born and grew in the time since their watch began, are soon alerted. Among them, the humans.

It takes time to break the gate. Longer still to squeeze its lumbering body through the gap. In the time required, an army is formed. Elves, for the most part, acting more on obligation than by altruism. Their mages are strong and numerous. The foe is strong, but together, they are stronger. The gate will be rebuilt, the key crushed and its shards thrown to the winds.

They mass themselves at the entrance to its cavern, over a hundred strong of the mightiest mages from the mightiest magical race, they watch as it slowly forces its way into their realm. They prepare their spells. It feels them there, feels its hunger, takes a breath. They smell strong, the power wafting off of them enough to make it ravenous; but it knows they are too many. It will not win. It will only be able to devour a few before it is forced back behind the gate. That is not enough to sate it. It opts for a different approach.

The gathered mages watch, stoic, as the creature finishes its journey, the end of its tail too wide to fit through the opening, smashing it wider. It glances up at them, and slips sideways from their view. It does not move sideways in a manner that those watching are built to comprehend, however. It slips not through a dimension, but out of it. The creature emerges into the void between the world spheres, and begins to swim. There is no air here, no magic to sustain itself on. It will be weakened when it reaches its destination. That is acceptable. There is much food awaiting it.

The mages are helpless to intervene as the creature passes them by, able, with effort, to sense the thing, but it is beyond their reach. They cannot stop it there. The elves decide they have done their part. They retreat to their home, almost all of their kin from across the many worlds following suit. It cannot breach their home when all of their power rests within it. Together, they are too strong.

Across the many realms, the sundry mages watch as the thing advances, its edges nudging gently at the world spheres as it slips between them. In the worlds it passes by too closely, things are born, springing forth from earth and rock, feral. Soon enough, its destination is determined. The creature heads for earth.

The humans are aware, and many panic. They are saved from chaos only by their secrecy. It is kept quiet. Most of them are not aware of magic. Even among those who are, it is kept quiet. Their communities converse, desperately at first, in fear of the thing. They seek aid from allies in other worlds, but there is little forthcoming.

The dwarves are of no real help against the beast. Their inclinations lie towards the technical, and they offer what help they can, but it is little. The gnomes are of little aid as well. They are spread too thin, their own mages divided between defense of their own homes, and the great cities of the dwarves, with whom they have been allies for far longer. The elves care for their own, and while they would mourn the loss of the human world, they reason that they can easily find different cattle to farm.

The only true aid comes in the form of the goblins, the humans’ newest, greatest ally. They go forth en masse, and their soldiers are there to stand with the race of man when the time comes. They share that world, after all, and it makes sense that they defend it as one.

Slowly, the governments of the human world come to calm. Efforts begin to mount, a cooperation is achieved. The hope is slim; the humans do not have power like the elves or the gnomes, and what few mages they possess are often of a poor calibre, their power largely drawn from interbreeding with other, stronger species. In spite of this, they gather together.

A plan is formed. The humans know their magic is weak, so they devise other means. Unlike the elves, they are learned in the ways that must be used to traverse the spaces between worlds. They, like the dwarves, have learned to craft miracles of metal and stone. The work is undergone with dwarvish aid, a vessel crafted to traverse the emptiness between stars, enchanted to slip outside of reality and face the creature. It is built to carry a weapon, an adaptation of a device used by the humans in decades past to tear whole cities asunder. It will be packed heavy with loose sand and metal, brought up close to the beast, and then the pilot will set the void aflame. The task bears no chance of survival, and of the scarce few with the skills to carry it out, none are forced to take the role. There is more than one volunteer.


November ninth, six years ago:

The vessel is complete. Only hours ago was it finally finished. When debate began over what it should be called, the chosen pilot made a request that no one present had the words to refuse. The ship is named Samantha, in memory of a daughter lost.

The beast approaches, and the ship is launched. The pilot speaks no words as she guides the craft towards it, but for a small gasp as she catches sight of her foe for the first time. Across a dozen worlds, seers watch the strange confrontation. The odd magic of dwarves and men is not well understood in the realms where true magic flows, and they wonder amongst themselves at what strange trickery the humans have in mind. Most agree that it bears no chance of working.

The beast smells a life within the craft, and alters its course. It has swum for a long time, and it is famished. It edges towards the craft, claws ready to tear open the casing and devour its occupant whole. It clamps its talons into the metal as worlds watch.

The pilot utters a last goodbye and presses a photograph of a loved one to her lips, before flicking a single switch. The many worlds gasp as one as the beast is engulfed in a storm of fire and rock. Several seers are rendered blind by a light that, for a single moment, outshines the stars themselves.

When the light clears, the beast is hurting. Its flesh is torn, scales ripped away, its fins ragged and ripped. It is angry, but the flame renewed its strength. It moves faster now.

They have months, at most.


December eighteenth, six years ago.

As the beast draws nearer, the human world falls slowly to chaos. The beast is a wellspring of primordial life, and on its approach, new horrors come to plague the world within its sight. Five of them. Across the earth, hunters gather to fight them, aided by the force of goblin armies, killing these new abominations as and when they are born. Every fight draws a toll. One charge is made against a serpent that tangles an island between its tails. The final blow is dealt by an odd pair: A man who brings forth flame from his hands, and a woman wielding a staff of carven wood.

The many nations scramble to hide the truth from their people, their agencies desperate to find a new, workable plan of attack. The effort is led by a man who speaks in many tongues, traveling the world and calling forth all he can find with a very specific gift. It is a plan inspired by the workings of the gnomes, who fight monsters by giving their champions power from among their people. In every country, those bearing the ability to empower others, regardless of the form, are gathered together, almost a thousand strong, but this is not the challenging part. The world scours itself for an individual with the capacity to bear their aid without both body and mind being torn asunder. It is in the few days prior to the beast’s arrival that one finally comes forth. Not the strongest among them, to be sure, but the strongest of those willing to try.

They wait until the last possible moment, unsure of how long, if at all, their champion will last under the weight of his enchantments. It is only when the beast flickers through into the realm of man that the task is begun. Many hundreds of hands lay themselves upon the champion, layering him with enchantments so numerous and esoteric as to defy rational reason. As the beast begins to breach the upper atmosphere, the man begins to scream.

It is unknown, in the aftermath, how the champion held on. It is known from the accounts of those around him that he ascended into the sky in a bolt of light. The last words the recording device placed on him was able to pick up, beyond the growls and the screaming, were him begging for his mother.

The creature is found in a crater on the Isle of Skye, most of its body burned away, unconscious. It is contained within a mound of molten steel that is then allowed to cool around it, before being layered with runes to seal it.

The champion is found four kilometers to the south, three days later. He is still screaming. His skin cannot be located. He is transferred to a medical facility in Norway, where he is visited once a day by a small girl with the power to induce a peaceful sleep.

The man who speaks in many tongues leads a mission to ferry the beast’s container back to the elves, where they may return it to the watchers for safekeeping. There, he barters concessions from them, and strikes their high lord in the face. One of the oldest among the elves watches this, amused, and, unknown to the human, places a small spell upon him. Then, he and his retinue return home. He returns to his family, holds his son close, and reaffirms his love to his wife, happy simply to be alive. Nine months later, a girl is born.


The present day.

Bex lay asleep in her bed, a small smile on her face as she explored the myriad wonderful and exciting adventures that her dreamscape held in store for her. She reoriented slightly against her pillows, and clutched her teddy a little tighter to her chest.

 

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Mistakes: 1.7

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4:30 PM, New York:

Peter rose from his desk with a sigh, clasping his hands together behind his head and pulling them backwards in an effort to stretch his cramped muscles. God damn he hated his job sometimes. He glanced back down at the mound of paperwork littering his work-space, each page marked with colored tabs, noting particular key words. He really would have preferred to do more of his work by computer, but the vast majority of his contacts refused to communicate via anything more electronically complicated than the early telegram. He let out a small collection of mumbled aggravations, picked up his coffee mug, drained it to the dregs, and exited his office, flicking off the light and throwing his jacket over himself as he went.

“Heading home early, Mr Toranaga?” His assistant asked, smiling at him from her own, slightly smaller desk.

“Yeah,” he replied, returning the smile. “Hoping to spend some time with the kids tonight. Could you wash my mug for me before you leave, Maya?”

“Sure,” The girl shrugged. “Just leave it on my desk and I’ll get to it. Would you like me to refill the cookie stash in your second drawer? I noticed it was running a little low.”

Peter chuckled. “Maya, what in god’s name would I do without you?”

“Crash and burn, sir.” She grinned. “Crash and burn.”

Peter shook his head wryly, set his mug down on Maya’s desk, and made his way down the hall towards the elevators. His phone buzzed in his pocket, a snatch of queen’s ‘Don’t stop me now’ emanating from it. He let out an instinctual groan as he reached into his pocket. That was his father’s text alert. His father never texted when he could speak, and that meant that he was deliberately trying to stay quiet. Peter checked the screen, and the sinking feeling in his stomach deepened.

‘Paris, Rue du Bac, could use a hand, if you’re free.’

Well, there went the next two hours of his life. Peter turned on his heel, walking away from the elevators and back towards his partner’s office, sliding his phone back into his pocket as he went. He opened the antechamber door and walked straight through, giving the assistant a perfunctory nod on the way through before knocking once or twice on the office door.

“Come in,” said a tired sounding female voice from the other side. Peter pushed it open and stepped inside. “If it’s about the budget statements, you’ll have them in an hou- Oh. Hey Peter, need something?” A middle aged woman sat at her desk, the glow of her computer screen casting unhealthy looking shadows across the wrinkles just beginning to edge their way out from her eyes and cheeks.

“Hey, Jackie,” Peter murmured, sliding the door closed. “Sorry. I’m afraid I need a favor. Can you open me a gate to Paris?” He pulled out his phone, showing her the message. “Family thing. Do you mind?”

Jackie groaned, pulling herself up from her seat and stepping towards a section of floor space kept clear specifically for making the gates to and from the office.

“You know, if your father needs your help as often as he seems to, maybe he should retire. No shame in being too old to hunt anymore.” As she spoke, she raised a hand into the air before her. A few dots began to emerge on a flat plane around her hand, glowing a faint blue in the empty air. She began drawing small lines between them with her fingers, leaving behind faint traceries of light behind her that slowly started to fill into a solid pattern of glyphs and signs.

“Heh,” Peter chuckled. “Don’t let it fool you. He doesn’t ask for help because he can’t handle things. He only does this when he wants to talk about something and doesn’t want me hanging up on him.”

“Well, can you get him to stop?” Jackie asked, her fingers tracing out patterns connecting the last of the little dots together. “I mean, not for nothing, but having a heart to heart with your father isn’t really big enough to justify building a planar gate between two completely separate continents. Do you have any idea how draining these are?” As she spoke the last few words, the glowing pattern shifted, the glyphs forming into a set of rings around one another as they began to rotate, each layer in a different direction to the ones on either side.

The rotations grew faster and faster, the glow intensifying as the rings began to condense, shrinking rapidly towards a central point. The disc shrank from perhaps two feet wide, to one foot, then an inch, then, for a single moment, condensed into a single point, smaller than a pinhead. Then, in less than a second, the point expanded, widening into a brightly glowing circle encompassing perhaps two meters of space. Within that ring, Peter saw the image of a darkened alleyway, tall buildings to either side. The image was so complete that it obscured his partner behind it.

“You’d better bring me back some decent coffee,” Jackie’s voice called out from behind the portal, oddly quiet, given the only two steps or so that divided them. “Real french stuff, none of that granulated swill.”

Peter snorted. “Of course not, Jacqueline, would I ever do that to you?”

He stepped through, the sound of his his friend grumbling “Don’t call me Jacqueline,” following him out into the cool parisian air. The portal winked out of existence behind him.


10:35 PM, Paris, Rue du Bac:

Peter stepped out of the alleyway and glanced around. The street was largely empty, but for a few late night wanderers, most of them clearly too young to be his father. He turned left, and set off along the sidewalk at a jog, eyes scanning his surroundings constantly. It would have been nice if his father had at least told him what they were hunting so that he could know what he should look out for. He found the man leaned against what looked to be a hotel wall, his slight form draped in a heavy trench coat despite the warmth of the nighttime air.

Hideyoshi Toranaga was not a large man, nor was he what anyone who didn’t know him may call even slightly physically imposing. Even draped in the heavy coat, his form was slight and small, even a little hunched. His hair was balding, covered for the moment by a brown fedora, and his face was almost uniformly unremarkable. He looked, in almost every way, the very definition of an unremarkable old man. Those who knew him better, however, knew this to be intentional.

“What took you so long, Akira?” The older man asked in quiet japanese. his fingers tearing the plastic free of a fresh packet of cigarettes and depositing it in a nearby trash bin, his other hand fishing in a pocket for his lighter. “I sent you that message nearly ten minutes ago.”

Peter rolled his eyes at his father’s use of his birth name, a habit the older man only tended to dip into when he was delivering reprimands.

“Might’ve gotten here quicker if you’d given me more info,” he grumbled back. “An address might have helped, or maybe a hint on what you were hunting.”

Hideyoshi flicked at his lighter a few times, swore quietly when nothing emerged from it, and snapped his thumb and forefinger together. A candle sized flame flickered to momentary life between his digits and he lit his cigarette, waving his hand a few times to extinguish the flame. He took a deep puff of the smoke, held it in his lungs for a moment, and exhaled.

“You really shouldn’t rely on supplied information so much.” He answered eventually. “Sets you up for situations where you have to make do without it.”

Peter considered this for a moment, weighed the idea in his mind, and eventually replied. “The hat makes you look stupid.”

The old man snorted. “Your mother likes it. Says it makes me look like a detective.”

“My mother is an angel and a liar,” Peter replied with a grin. “Now, where are we headed? I’d rather get home quickly, I did have plans for the evening.”

Hideyoshi nodded, pointing with the tip of his cigarette towards the river at the terminus of the road.

“Reports of shadow figures skulking about around an apartment block near the Pont Royal at night time.” He murmured. “A few random assaults in alleyways leaving people with perplexing injuries. A Swedish boy severely wounded at a local youth hostel, the girl who was traveling with him, one Tuva Bergqvist, hasn’t been seen since. I’m thinking someone developed some summoning powers.”

Peter glanced at his father, irritated. “Bogeymen, really? You needed my help dealing with some novice summoner who, by the sounds of it, can’t even keep a few bogeymen in command?”

“If I wanted to hunt them,” Hideyoshi replied. “Then yes, I could have done this myself, but this newbie has shown a little bit of talent. One of these bogeymen, if the report is right, remained corporeal even after being hit by a car. Besides, I’m fairly sure most of the harm done was accidental. I think the kid might be worth training. There might be one or two control issues, but there’s power there. Figured I might give them a shot.”

“Alright, fine,” Peter answered evenly. “But the fact remains, it’s not like you need any help to restrain some entry level summoner, even if they do have some skill.”

“I don’t speak french nearly as well as you,” said his father. “Let alone swedish. Figured you wouldn’t mind helping your old man talk the kid down and make the offer.” He turned a stony look across at Peter. “Seems like the least you could do, seeing as you keep refusing to let me train my grand kids.”

Peter took in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and focused on maintaining his calm. “That was a low blow, dad.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, offering the cigarette packet to his son. “I’ll stop bringing it up when you let me train them. Simple as that.”

“Is it really too much to ask that you just let your grand kids live normal, happy lives?” Peter asked, raising a hand in refusal of the offer.

“A little,” his father replied mildly. “At this point, I just wish you’d tell me what it is you’re so scared of. They’re your kids and my grand kids. There’s no doubt they’d be powerful, so what’s the problem?”

“The problem, dad,” Peter replied as they began walking together in the direction of the bridge, trying to pretend he wasn’t just repeating the same argument for the hundredth time. “Is the mortality rate. Spin it any way you like, but those two have a better chance of living long, healthy lives if they don’t know a damn thing about any of this.”

“And how are you going to stop them figuring out something’s amiss when they’re still around at a hundred and forty, hmm?” Hideyoshi asked. “Longevity is well established in our family, Peter, and your kids are included in that, even with their mother being as powerless as she is. Or what if one of them breaks an arm or something and manifests their powers?” He gave his son a pointed look. “I heard James just got out of hospital.”

“Dad,” Peter sighed. “I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on him ever since the injury, and he hasn’t shown any signs. I even set him up for a psych eval to see if he had any mental powers hidden away. Nothing, not for a week and a half. Looks like James is just a little too tough for a broken leg to do it.”

Hideyoshi grunted. “Well, he is my grandson. Of course he’d be hard to crack. You could at least teach the kid a martial art or something, you know. Who the hell is clumsy enough to break a leg on playground equipment?”

“Eh, the bars were slippery.” Peter muttered. The lie flowed surprisingly easily off his tongue. James had asked that no one know why he had been placed in the hospital, so a broken leg and playground equipment it was. “But hey, if it’d make you feel better to start teaching him martial arts, you are more than welcome to offer.”

Hideyoshi finished his cigarette in silence as they made their way towards the bridge, tossing the nub into the gutter.

“In any case,” he grunted eventually. “We’re nearly there.” He pointed towards a building on the opposite side of the road to them. “Most of the shadows seem to be originating from this apartment block. Given where most of the stories take place, I’d hazard that our summoner is holed up near the top somewhere. Feel like giving your old man a hand?”

Peter shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

The two wordlessly stepped inside, stepping shoulder to shoulder so as to fill the narrow hallways of the building as they made their way up to the upper floors. Peter had half expected to encounter a bogeyman before they even reached their destination, but the place was surprisingly quiet. He did notice, however, the way the shadows seemed to flicker and shift in the corners of his eyes, the dim light of the corridor lamps not quite penetrating the dark as far as it should, both classic signs of the entities, to be sure, but it was surprising to see them so non-aggressive. It took a lot to restrain their naturally violent tendencies. Bogeymen were, after all, usually formed of nightmares and negativity, and thus tended to be fairly… impulsive.

“Any ideas on narrowing down where this girl’s hiding?” Peter asked as they made their way up a flight of stairs to the highest floor.

“Not really,” Hideyoshi replied. “Thought we could scare her out, see how she handles the pressure.”

“Nice to see you still have your mean streak,” Peter snorted. “Sounds workable. Give me a few minutes to set something up.” He dug his phone out of a pocket, opening up a web browser, and finding an appropriate sound file. “If her shadows have hurt people in front of her, then she’s bound to be on edge. This should do the trick. You wait by the stairs to intercept. I’ll do the rest.”

Hideyoshi nodded, leaning casually against the stairway wall. Peter made his way along to the end of the top floor hallway, before pressing a few buttons on his phone. It began to emanate the sound of a french police siren, relatively quiet. He turned the speaker to its highest setting, before he began to speak, relatively loudly, transitioning easily from japanese to french.

The vast majority of powers that people tended to manifest had very noticeable effects; his father’s pyrokinetics, this Tuva girl’s monster summoning and Jackie’s intercontinental teleportation, to name a few. In his early career, his childhood especially, he had envied such powers to a degree. When his own power had been diagnosed to him as ‘intuitive linguistics,’ both he, and his parents, to a lesser degree, had been distinctly disappointed. Their family traditionally tended towards combat readiness in all things, and a power that helped one avoid conflict had seemed, at the time, counterintuitive at best. It was times like this one, however, when he couldn’t help but relish it a little.

“Tuva Bergqvist!” He bellowed over the sound of his phone’s klaxon wail, his Parisian accent nigh on perfect. “We have you surrounded! Please do not be alarmed! Please come out quietly with your hands over your head!”

The response was not long in coming. One or two confused looking heads poked out from behind apartment doors, gazing at the strange, shouty man apprehensively. One door, however, burst open with such force that the hinges were almost pried from the wall, causing the startled onlookers to rapidly return into the safety of their homes. A young woman emerged from within, surrounded on all sides by at least four separate and distinct shadow men. The girl sent one terrified glance towards Peter, before positively bolting down the hallway, all but one of her shadows running in stride with her. The remaining shadow turned towards Peter and spread its arms wide, not moving, but clearly intent on barring his path. He almost laughed, stepping forwards towards the thing. His right hand dipped into a pocket, his fingers threading through the grips of his knuckle dusters.

The creature, if that was even the correct word, opened what passed for its mouth, a gaping maw of glistening, oily looking teeth embedded in a featureless plane of a face, and let out a screeching wail that was half animal, half washing machine. It raised an arm high into the air, a massive, clawed hand poised to strike. Peter decked it in the face.

The creature briefly recoiled from the blow, only to rear up and let out another unnatural sounding wail. It made a break for the window at the end of the hallway.

Peter grimaced. It was not unexpected that the creature would run, bogeymen were surprisingly cowardly things. But broken windows tended to attract attention. He whirled around as it passed him, and slammed his fist once more into its odd, almost gaseous head. As with most apparitions, bogeymen tended to break if one applied too much damage to a given spot, so he aimed once again for the face. There was a sound like a glass cracking, and something similar to smoke began to billow from the creature’s head. Whatever physical presence the thing had, it began to lose it. He struck it again, and the shadow lost cohesion, its body exploding into a cloud of faintly foul smelling black smoke.

Peter stood, brushed himself off, and made his way after the girl at a brisk jog. He made it to the stairwell just in time to watch the last of the bogeymen disintegrate, immolated by his father’s flames. The old man hadn’t even moved from his position, leaning against the wall.

The girl, Tuva, was backing away from him, not looking behind herself and, as a result, she bumped into Peter in the attempt. She whirled on him with a little yelp, a look of undisguised terror in her eyes. Apparently by sheer instinct, the girl attempted to strike him. Peter caught her hand in his own with little effort, and said, not unkindly:

“Miss Tuva, please calm down. We’re here to help you.”

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Mistakes: 1.3

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Author’s note: So I won’t normally be doing this, but here I think it’s important. This chapter contains a scene you may find very hard to read. I know that I found it hard to write. If you have read this far, then you already know that this story deals with child abuse and molestation. This chapter explores that further and while it is not, to my mind, tasteless or crass, some of you may find reading it a difficult experience.

James:

James exited the school building with a yawn. It had been a tiring day. A good day, to be sure, but a tiring one. He glanced sidelong at Casper walking alongside him. The other boy had come to find him the moment classes ended, picking up their conversation where they’d left off at lunch without missing a beat.

“So, how’re you getting home?” He asked, gesturing to the parking lot. “My parents usually come to pick me up, you?”

“Meh,” Casper shrugged. “I walk home. It’s not too far to my place, and there’s some stuff I like to do on the way home.”

“Oh yeah?” James replied, curious. “What sort of stuff?”

“Fighting crime,” Casper replied, totally straight faced. “Me and this other kid I know. We find evildoers and beat them up and stuff.”

James snorted, shaking his head slightly. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that his new friend might actually be a massive dork.

“Like superheroes?” He asked. “That sounds fun. Do you have an evil league you get to fight? Or maybe one super smart rich guy with way too much free time.”

“Space Nazis,” the freckly boy replied immediately. “They’re like regular Nazis, but they live in spaaaace!” He raised his hands to shoulder level, wiggling his fingers for dramatic emphasis.

“Does living in space make them extra evil?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “These ones steal puppies!”

James let out an exaggerated gasp, raising a hand to his mouth in feigned shock.

“Oh no! That’s SUPER evil!”

“That’s not all, though,” Casper continued, his grin growing wider. “Every puppy they steal gets experimented on and added to their secret legion of puppy cyborgs. They’re gonna use them to take over the earth!”

James let out a high pitched little giggle at the sudden, vivid mental image.

“Okay, stop it!” He said, giving the other boy a gentle shove. “I gotta go, my parents are waiting.” He pointed a finger to the parking lot where, sure enough, his mother’s car sat waiting for him. “This was fun, though. See you tomorrow, Casper!”

“Yeah,” came the shouted reply from behind him as he set off towards the car at a jog. “See you tomorrow, James!” He waved behind himself in Casper’s general direction, before reaching the car door and yanking it open with a sharp tug.

“Hi Mom,” He greeted as he climbed inside the car, catching sight of each of his family in turn. “Hi Dad. Hey Bex! I had the best day today!”

The response this proclamation received was not as expected. Sarah gazed at him, eyes transfixed for a few moments, before reaching out and yanking the boy forwards into a tight hug.

“That’s good to hear,” she murmured, her words masked by a slight sniffle. “I was so worried.”

Peter, for his part, gave his son a few brief pats on the head, smiling down at him.

“That’s my boy.” He said quietly.

“Uhh,” Rebecca muttered from her seat, glancing around. “Mom? Dad? Why are you being weird?”

James felt a slight twinge, a momentary regret for making his mother sad. He pushed it aside, prying himself free of his mother’s grip.

“It was really cool!” He continued proudly, determined to reassure his mother that everything was fine. “I got to talk to all my friends and handed in all my homework and then I made friends with another boy called Casper who talks about space Nazis!”

Peter chuckled slightly at his son’s words. Sarah, for her part, nodded along, rubbing at her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket as she listened.

“What’s a space Nazi?” Rebecca asked, prodding her brother in the side.

“It’s like a regular Nazi,” James replied, turning to his sister with a grin. “But it’s a Nazi that lives in space! They have evil puppy robots!”

Rebecca gazed at her brother for a few moments, before crossing her arms and scowling at him.

“I don’t get it,” she muttered. “Your friends are weird.”

James prodded his sister in the side and she yelped, giving him a look of utmost betrayal. He stuck out his tongue at her and she replied in kind.

“Now now,” Sarah chided with a wet little chuckle. “Be nice, kids.”

“So,” Peter asked, his tone casual. “You gonna come back to school again tomorrow?”

James stopped for a moment, glancing first at his father, then briefly at his mother.

“Well…” He said, his voice small. “I mean… I wanna. But, if it makes you sad, I-I guess I can stay ho-“

“No!” Sarah cut him off, shaking her head vehemently. “No, if you’re having fun and it’s making you happy, then that’s all I need to hear! I’ll be fine, sweetie, I promise.”

“… You sure?” James asked, gazing up at his mother uncertainly.

“Yeah,” she replied, giving him a brief nod. “I’ll be fine.” Without looking at her, Peter placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, his fingers tightening to give her a little squeeze.

The three of them gazed between each other for a few moments, James feeling uncertain whether he should be feeling happy or sad right now. The moment broke when Rebecca, apparently deciding she was being ignored, chose to capitalize on James’ lack of attention by launching herself across the seat at his unprotected side, roaring a battle cry and poking him fiercely between the ribs with every chance she got. The boy yelped in surprise and the tiniest amount of pain, before making his counterattack, playfully wrestling his sister back into her seat. Peter and Sarah only laughed.

The car was about halfway home, stuck at a set of traffic lights, when James spoke again, deciding to air a topic he had been debating with himself all day.

“Uhh…” He cleared his throat quietly, drawing his parents’ attention in an instant. “I umm… I was… K-kinda hoping… m-maybe I could try sleeping in my own bed again tonight?”

Almost immediately, the light atmosphere within the car dropped, both adults turning to look at him with very different, but equally serious expressions.

“Are you sure?” Peter asked, his voice set in a tense sort of calm. “We can go as slow with this as you need to, you know?” Sarah nodded, her expression set in stone, before returning her eyes to the road.

James hesitated, uncertain, but eventually nodded.

“I… I had a really good day today. F-felt more normal than I have in a long time and… and I think maybe it’s enough… You know?”

“Sure I do,” Peter murmured, his tone low. “Of course you can, James.”

“You know where our room is,” Sarah added quietly, still not turning her eyes from the road. “Come in anytime if you can’t sleep. I don’t care if you wake us up.”

James nodded, relieved.

“Yeah. I will. Thanks Mom. Thanks, Dad.”

Casper:

Casper grunted slightly as he thought back over the events of his day, slowly trudging his way home along the slightly less crowded city streets.

James was a confusing one; that was certain. His emotions seemed just as stable and happy as any other kid for the most part, but Casper couldn’t help but notice the strange flicker of fear the boy felt every time a teacher had passed his desk. Further than that, though, he’d felt James’ parents once again as they picked him up from school, and had received possibly the strangest influx of mixed emotions he had ever felt. Anxiety, relief, a moment of what felt like pride from the father and a stab of guilt from the mother. Casper shook his head. Every new piece of context he got, it just made the puzzle seem harder to figure out, somehow.

“Why didn’t these damn powers come with a manual?” He grumbled, his feet starting to stomp slightly as he trudged his way home in the afternoon sun.

James:

“Shh!” The stranger said urgently, his voice halfway between a whisper and a command. “It’s okay! I’m not gonna hurt you!”

“But you ARE hurting me!” The boy yelled, trying to pull away with all his might. “Let go!” The hands grasping his wrists only tightened their grip as he struggled.

“It’s okay!” The man replied, his voice taking on a tone of false sounding reassurance. “You’ll see. It’ll be fine! Just hold still.”

The boy groaned and fought as a hand grasped him by the back of the head, forcing his face down onto the grimy surface of the bathroom wash station. His nostrils filled with the stinging aromas of industrial hand soaps and grease. Despite every effort, his vision started to blur as water began slowly building around his eyes.

“No, let me go!” He yelled hoarsely, trying to lift his head, only for it to be pushed back down even harder than before. “Please!”

The assailant did not respond, but for a few small grunts of effort as he pulled at something outside of the boy’s field of view.

The next thing James felt was pain. He let out a single, ragged scream.

“Shhh now…” Said the stranger quietly, his voice catching occasionally with exertion. “It’ll… stop hurting… in a minute.”


James awoke in tears, his body rolled tight as he could into a little ball. The boy was so out of it that, for the first few moments, he completely failed to notice how his body hung, suspended, almost three feet above his bed. Instead, he focused inward, trying to bring himself to some semblance of calm.

“Just a dream,” he whispered to himself in the silence, tears still streaming down his face. “Just a dream. Just a dream.”

Only when sufficiently calm did James open his eyes, noting with a small yelp how far away the covers of his bed seemed. He uncurled himself, stretching out and grasping for the tangled sheets below, just an inch or two out of his reach. Panic rising, he began moving, almost swimming, trying to pull himself through the air towards his bed.

“Come on,” he muttered to himself, trying and failing to quell his rising terror. “Just… a little closer. Gotta get… back… down.”

All at once, gravity seemed to reassert itself. James fell back to the bed with a soft thud, landing awkwardly on one shoulder. He bounced, his body going base over apex, before coming to rest on his back. He lay there for a long while, staring up at his ceiling with glassy eyes as he tried and failed to absorb the shock.

“What’s happening to me?” He asked quietly of the empty room.

Peter:

Peter had never been a deep sleeper, even before his parents’ training had instilled vigilance in him. As such, the faint creak of the bedroom door slowly swinging open, its hinges allowed to rust on purpose so as to always alert him to an entry, was enough to rouse him immediately. Peter moved slowly, feigning sleep, reaching an arm under his pillow and finding the grip of his gun. He heard the soft sound of footsteps approaching as the intruder drew nearer and felt his body drawing tense in response, like a coiled spring. Taking a firmer grip on his pistol with his right hand, Peter moved his left to gently prod Sarah awake beside him. She roused with just the tiniest shudder, coming to alertness near instantaneously.

There was a minute shift of weight as the newcomer reached the bed, their breathing heavy and, perplexingly, dropped down onto the mattress. Peter allowed his eyes to open a crack and glanced down at the newcomer in the darkness. Hard to make out. He began to slowly pull his gun free of the pillow, ready to confront whoever this new assailant was.

The stranger made a small sniffling noise, their small form coming into sharper focus as they began to crawl up along the bed sheets. Recognizing the intruder, Peter immediately let his grip on the gun relax, pushing it back deep into its hiding place.

“Hey James,” he murmured, his voice quiet. “You okay, little buddy?”

The boy didn’t respond, shifting up to his father’s side and laying himself down, silent but for the occasional quivering breath. Peter let out a small sigh, reaching out and pulling his son in close, letting James’ head rest against his chest. He felt the child’s hands reach up around him in return, the boy pulling himself in tighter.

“Couldn’t sleep?” He asked, moving his hand to slowly stroke the boy’s pyjama clad back. Again, no response. He felt James’ arms tighten around him, the boy practically clinging on to him. “Okay,” he answered quietly. “It’s okay. Wanna talk about it?”

James shook his head, the movement producing a slight rustling noise as his hair shifted against the bed. Peter gave a small nod, shifting slightly to hold his son more comfortably, one arm dropping back to the mattress as the other draped over James’ shoulders.

“I see,” he murmured, allowing his eyes to close once more. “That’s okay. Go to sleep, buddy. It’s gonna be fine, alright?” Against his chest, he felt James give a small nod, his breathing beginning to settle just a little. “That’s right,” he said gently as the boy began to slowly drift off to sleep. “There we go.” Under the covers, Peter felt his wife’s hand find his own, wrapping around his fingers and giving them a squeeze. He squeezed back, slowly trying to clear his head enough to fall back once more to sleep.

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Mistakes: 1.2

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“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sarah asked quietly, gazing back at her son in the rear view mirror. “We can always wait a few more days, you know.”

Before she’d even finished talking, the boy was shaking his head, arms folding defensively.

“Yeah, I know, mom,” James replied. “But I really wanna get back there. I’m sick and tired of just staying at home all day. I wanna see my friends. Please? You said I could.”

From his spot in the side seat, Peter raised a placating hand.

“No one’s stopping you, James,” he murmured. “We just want to be sure you’re ready.”

“Well I am, ok?” The boy replied with a hint of impatience. “Can I go now? I wanna say hi to Charlie before class starts.”

Sarah sighed, glad at least to see her son acting a little more energetic today.

“Do you have your phone?” She asked, turning in her seat to face him. James nodded.

“Yup. And it’s fully charged.”

“Lunchbox?”

Another nod.

“Schoolbooks?”

“Mom,” James grumbled, shooting an impatient glance out of the window. “I have everything, I promise.”

Sarah chuckled.

“Alright, sweetie,” she murmured, reaching out to pull the boy into a hug. “Have a nice day.”

“I will,” James replied, grinning. He pulled back from the hug after a few moments to open the car door, hopping down onto the pavement with a light thud. “See ya later!”

The door slammed closed behind the boy and the two parents watched, smiling out of the window at their son as he made his way up the steps to the school building.

“Well done,” Peter said gently, still holding the smile fixed in place as James ascended the last of the steps. “Now just hold the smile till he moves out of sight, okay?”

“Yeah,” Sarah replied, her voice tense. “I know. Can’t let him know how hard this is.”

As James reached the top of the steps, he turned, glancing back at his parents and giving them a wave. Peter and Sarah waved back, smiling as best they could. The deception seemed to work, and James turned back away from them, stepping in through the wide double door.

The moment James was out of sight, Sarah lifted her hands to her face, covering her mouth before letting out a muffled noise somewhere between a scream and a primal groan.

Peter placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, attempting to reassure her as best he could.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “He’ll be fine. There’ll be teachers around him the whole day and we’ll be here to pick him and Bex up the moment classes finish. It’s going to be fine.”

Even as he spoke the words, Peter was trying desperately to believe them himself. Even knowing them to be true, it was not easy.

Sarah, head still buried in her hands, nodded slowly.

“I hate this,” she whispered, her voice coming out slightly muffled. “Watching him cry in his sleep. Having to pretend I’m totally fine when it feels like I’m breaking inside. I hate it.”

“I know,” Peter replied, reaching out to wrap an arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “Me too.”

“You know what the worst part is, though?” She continued, leaning in against her husband’s chest. “The worst part is having to apply that fucking makeup every morning. Having to look at those damn markings for ten minutes and pretend that it isn’t bothering me at all.”

“I know,” Peter answered, slowly rubbing Sarah’s back in comfort. “If you want, I can take over makeup duty for a while.”

In spite of herself, Sarah let out a choked little chuckle, leaning backwards a little and removing her hands from her face to gaze across at her husband with slightly wet eyes.

“Oh please,” she rebuked gently. “As if you know the first thing about makeup.”

“What if I do?” Peter replied with the very smallest of smiles. “I’ll have you know it takes a lot of work to look this perfect.” He gestured to his face playfully.

“As if!” Sarah snorted. “You don’t need makeup. You have that perfect Asian face thing going on. You’ll look twenty right up until you turn forty, and then you’ll look like an old man forever.”

“Oh, so it’s an Asian thing, is it?” Peter grinned. “I take offense at that, racist.”

Sarah chuckled, adopting her best deep south accent.

“Sorry partner. All you Japs look the same to me. Yessir!”

The two gazed at one another in silence for a moment or two before both, near simultaneously, began to laugh.

“What was that voice?” Peter asked, prodding his wife gently in the shoulder. “That was terrible!”

“Sorry!” Sarah chuckled. “Guess I never spent enough time working on my stereotypes.”

After a few moments, the levity died away, the interior of the car falling slowly back to still silence.

“Thanks for being here today,” Sarah murmured eventually. “I don’t think I could have done this on my own.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” Peter answered. “It’s not as if I would have been able to focus at work today anyway.”

“Still,” said Sarah, giving her husband a small squeeze before pulling back and setting her attention to starting up the car. “Thank you.”

Casper:

Casper arrived at the school early, as had become his habit in recent months. Arriving early meant that the emotions all around him would build up gradually, allowing him to slowly acclimatize to each new arrival rather than being overwhelmed in having to deal with them all at once. At the same time, arriving earlier made it easier for him to find a mind to focus on in order to help drown out the others. It was easier focusing on just one set of emotions. Doing so made it possible to discern his own feelings from the jumble.

He sat on the steps as the first of the other students began to arrive, slowly opening his power out and allowing their minds to brush against his. He ignored most of them as best he could, identifying each mind by feel before continuing his search for one that might make a good shelter for the day.

In the months that Casper had been taking refuge in the emotions of others, he had found three or four minds that he preferred over the rest. These were the minds that tended to be the steadiest or the happiest, rendering them both more comfortable to focus on and somewhat less distracting. These were also students whose schedules placed them close to him throughout the day, preventing the necessity of finding someone new as they moved away.

Casper’s attention was drawn for a moment by the arrival of a mind he hadn’t felt recently. A boy from the year below him; James, if he remembered it right. Despite never having spoken, Casper liked this boy. His mind had almost always been calm and cheerful, a trait that had led him to take refuge there a number of times and which was also what drew his attention now. Something was strange about James today, beyond the anxiety he seemed to be feeling. He felt… different somehow, more serious. Had something happened to the boy?

Curious, he glanced over to the spot where he felt the other boy’s emotions emanating from. He found James with relative ease. He was sitting in the back seat of a car, talking to an Asian looking man and a blonde lady who Casper took to be his parents. As he watched, the boy’s emotions shifted, moving from anxious excitement, to defensiveness, through irritation and then back into the same anxious excitement, tinted now with a small touch of relief. Had he just won an argument?

Confused, Casper expanded his power out slightly further, attempting to gain some sense of context from the minds of James’ parents. He reached out, brushing his mind against theirs for the briefest of moments. Almost instinctively, he recoiled, pulling his power back from the pair. He stared at them both as they waved their son goodbye. Both adults were anxious on a scale that he struggled to even find the words for.

Casper shook his head, trying to clear it of the sudden surge of emotion, before returning his attention to James. The boy’s emotions shifting slightly towards excitement as he encountered a cluster of his friends inside the school building. His curiosity piqued, Casper made his way inside the school, resolving to observe the strange boy further through the day.

James:

Being back at school was, for James, an almost incomprehensible relief.

For the first time in what felt like an age, no one was looking at him strangely, aside, perhaps, from one or two teachers, perhaps noticing how he tried to keep his distance from them. It wasn’t really something he could help. Adults made him nervous.

James’ friends, however, didn’t seem to notice a thing, and he relaxed into their presence like a warm bath, chatting about tv and football and books at every opportunity. It felt normal. It felt right. He found himself smiling again without having to make an effort. It was nice.

James sat on the outskirts of the school oval at lunchtime, eating an apple as he watched his friends play some undefinable ball game they’d devised between themselves, one bearing a passing resemblance to both dodgeball and rugby. They’d invited him to join, but he’d declined, cautious of the delicate layer of makeup covering the marks on his face. James had instead elected to watch, sitting with his back to a wall. It felt safer knowing there was no one behind him. He took a bite of his apple, munching on it slowly as he soaked in the rays of the early afternoon sun. He’d missed this.

“Hey,” came an unfamiliar male voice from somewhere to James’ right. “Can I sit with you?”

James turned his head, his eyes falling on a sandy haired, freckly boy who he vaguely recognized as being from the year above him.

“Sure,” he shrugged, shifting to the side by a foot or so in invitation. “Plenty of room.”

The other boy took a step forward, his form slumping down beside James without ceremony. The two sat silently together for a few minutes, watching the game. James took another bite of his apple.

“Why aren’t you joining in?” The unknown boy asked, his voice mild, one hand gesturing to the other children moving in clusters around the ball.

“Didn’t feel like it today,” James lied with a shrug, only a touch regretful. In honesty, he’d have liked nothing better than to be playing ball with the others. He took another bite of his apple.

“Huh,” the freckly boy replied after a few moments, staring at the ball. “That’s kinda weird. I usually see you out there running with the others.”

“I didn’t know there was anyone watching,” James muttered, glancing sideways at the newcomer. “That’s kinda weird too.”

“Meh,” The pale boy shrugged. “Just saw you playing every now and again is all.” He grinned, casting James a mischievous look. “Or maybe I should say I’ve been watching from the shadows for years. For fate determined us to be star crossed millennia ago, when I was just a boy, and I have kept this form for years, waiting for you to arrive.”

“I think maybe you watch too many crummy romance movies.” James replied with a snort.

“Nah,” The freckled boy chuckled. “Mostly just anime, really.”

“Yeah?” James asked, interested. “Me too. My grandparents keep giving me boxes of them so I won’t forget my Japanese.”

“You speak Japanese?”

“Yup,” James replied proudly. “Ojiisan and Obaasan come from there, so they wanted me to learn it early.”

“Oji-” the other boy began, one eyebrow raised, before James cut him off.

“My grandparents,” he supplied. “Sorry.”

The two were silent for a few minutes, watching the game. The quiet was broken by a small grumble from the sandy haired boy’s stomach. James glanced at him, head slightly cocked to one side.

“Don’t you have your lunch with you?” He asked mildly.

“Uh… No,” the pale boy replied awkwardly, his eyes dropping to the grass between his knees as he began picking at a stray root. “I uhh… forgot to grab it on my way to school.”

James shrugged, one hand moving to his own bright red lunchbox by his side and digging around in it for a moment, before producing a small, plastic wrapped package.

“I have a spare sandwich if you want it,” he offered. “I’m not gonna eat it.”

The freckled boy shook his head awkwardly for a few moments, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment.

“N-no thanks,” he mumbled. “I’m okay.”

James gazed at the other boy for a few moments, before very deliberately placing the sandwich on the ground between them.

“Well, I’m not gonna touch it,” he said with a shrug. “So I guess it’ll just sit there till someone comes and cleans it up.” That done, he returned his attention to the game, watching the newcomer out of the corner of his eye.

After a few moments, the sandy haired boy picked up the sandwich, carefully avoiding looking at James the whole time. He held the package between his knees as he unwrapped it, looking almost as if he was trying to shield it from James’ sight. The boy took a bite, chewing for a moment or two, then swallowing.

“T-thanks.” Came the quiet mutter, sounding almost ashamed.

“S’okay,” James replied, smiling. “I’m James, what’s your name?”

“Casper,” the boy said quietly. “I’m Casper.”

“Nice to meet you, Casper,” said James, grinning. “So, what sort of anime do you like?”

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