Bonus Chapter: Small Worlds.

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Bonus chapter: Small Worlds.


Eleven years ago:

Asset Eighteen awoke with a groan to the sound of his phone going off.

For a second, he just lay there in bed, eyes closed, trying to pretend he was still asleep. There wasn’t a reason to get up. None at all. Who sent texts at Two in the morning? The bosses didn’t matter. Seventeen could wait.

He let himself pretend that for a solid twenty seconds, before pulling his body upright. He rubbed bleariness from his eyes, propped his butt against his pillow, and checked his phone.

The message was from Seventeen.

It was only one word long:

‘Help.’


The residents of New Jersey were clearly quite surprised to see the twelve year old sprinting barefoot down the street, a line of scavenged linen fluttering in the wind behind him. He heard some of them call out to him; dodged between the ones who tried to stop him. He didn’t care about them. He just clutched the jumbled fabric a little tighter and sprinted for all he was worth.

He reached the block containing his partner’s cage in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother with the stairs. If this was what he thought it was, Seventeen wouldn’t be in a state to open the door. Instead, he climbed the fire escape, vaulting up the ladder and taking the steps three or four at a time. He reached her window, loosened the latch with a muttered spell, yanked it open, and climbed inside.

He found Seventeen curled up in the corner of the room, her pillow wrapped tight around her head. There was vomit on the floor. She was shaking.

She knew he was there. Of course she knew. That was the problem in a nutshell. She was his counterpart, bred for enhanced senses just as he was for physicality. Even with that pillow around her head, she could tell him exactly where he was.

And where everyone else in the building was. And the location of every dumpster. And what they all held.

“Help me,” she whispered, her arms squeezing the pillow convulsively around her ears. “The world’s too big. Help.”

To Eighteen’s credit, he did not hesitate. He strode across the room, casually ignoring the vomit on the floor, and picked her up.

She clung to him.

He carried her to her bed, deposited her gently on the sheets, and wrapped them around her like a burrito. Her whimpers softened, just a little. He repeated the action with the linen from his own cage, burying her under seven or so layers of bundled fabric. She sniffled.

He nodded, satisfied. The treatment was starting to take effect. Good. He picked his friend-burrito up, carried her through to her tiny bathroom, and dumped her in the shower, before returning to the main room. Then, he closed the window, and started searching the place for more material. Her curtains were terrible. Cheap plastic things that crinkled as they moved. Perfect.

He pulled them down, bundling them up in his arms along with a towel and assorted shirts. From there, he returned to the bathroom, unfolded the plastic curtains, and draped them over Seventeen’s head, followed in short order by the fabrics. Okay. That was the main structure in place. Now he just had to finish it up.

He closed the door into the main room, and turned off the light.

Great. He was now completely blind.

“Hey,” he murmured, quiet as he could. “Seventeen. You know who’s a huge dummy and can’t see in the dark?”

From the rough direction of the shower, there was a snuffly kind of laugh.

“O-one step forwards,” she mumbled.

Eighteen allowed himself a small smile, closed his eyes, and stepped blindly forwards.

“Two steps left.”

Eighteen obeyed.

“Turn around a little bit.”

He turned. She giggled.

“The other way, doofus.”

“I knew that,” he muttered, turning the other way.

“Sure you did. One step forward, then one step right.”

He stepped.

“You found me.”

“I found you,” he echoed, reaching down and patting the rough area where he assumed her head to be. He was pretty sure he got it. “Good work, ground control. Engaging operation domino fortress. Ready to proceed?”

A wet snicker.

“Roger, Alpha One.”

He spent a few awkward seconds fumbling in the dark for the shower handle, before turning on the water, and soaking the both of them with a lukewarm spray. He gave it just enough time for the water to run warm, then turned it back off. he got down on his hands and knees, lifted the edge of the fabric draped over Seventeen’s head, and climbed in under it with her.

It was disconcerting to him. Under the curtain, muffled by layers of liquid sodden cloth, he couldn’t hear a damn thing besides her breathing.

That was the point. Put the rest of the world as far away as possible.

He reached out, took his friend-burrito by the shoulders, and propped her up between his knees for a hug. Now he had only one job left. Listen to her breathing, and keep her calm.

She nuzzled her face against his shoulder. He pretended not to notice the moisture in her eyes.

“It’s still so loud,” she sniffed. “It’s everywhere.”

“No it’s not,” he muttered. “It’s far away from us. The world’s just you and me right now.” He pulled her in a little tighter, his hand rubbing gently at her back.

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Eighteen kept her snuggled there until her breathing evened out. He wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep. He nodded off himself not long after.


Two Days Ago:

Eighteen sat in the visitor’s chair, gazing down at his hands. He’d taken days drumming up the courage to come here. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say. Instead, he just sat there, glaring at the plastic cuff wrapped around his wrist.

A tracking device. The irony was painful.

He shot a look at his minder by the door. The man raised an eyebrow. Eighteen scowled at him. The minder just shrugged.

He took a breath.

‘Just get it over with.’

He looked at Thirteen. The kid looked back, right in his eyes. He looked away.

The sound of fingers snapping together. His head jerked up. It was Seventeen. She was still standing exactly where she had been for the last half hour, out in the hallway, back against the wall by the open door as her eyes scanned mechanically back and forth across her field of view. She didn’t look at him.

She did speak, though, in a fashion. The tiniest jerk of her head towards the hospital bed. That was about as vocal as she ever got in public.

He sighed.

“Yeah. I know.”

Another tiny movement of her head towards the bed. There was no arguing with her sometimes.

“I was a dick,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked the wounded boy in the eye. Thirteen’s gaze was cold. Eighteen kept going. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back, no matter what, I’ll do it. I promise.”

Thirteen’s expression remained unchanged. Eighteen returned his gaze to the floor.

When a response finally came, it was barely louder than a croak. Hardly surprising. The kid’s throat was just as torn up as the rest of him.

“You’re not worth it,” he said. “Not worth her. Neither of you are.”

Eighteen took the words on the chest as best he could.

“Fuck you,” he murmured. “We’re worth plenty.”

Thirteen let out a noise that began as a laugh, but finished as more of a pained groan.

“She’s broken and you’re an asshole,” he replied. “Twenty Three’s worth more than both of you.”

Eighteen closed his eyes and took a breath. He had promised himself that no matter what Thirteen said, he’d take it. He deserved everything the kid could dish out and more. He forced himself to give the guy a chance.

“She’s not broken,” he said quietly. “Take it back.”

“Prove me wrong,” Thirteen replied, glaring at him.

Eighteen opened his mouth to reply, not entirely sure of what he was even going to say, when a knocking from the corridor stopped him short. The two of them looked around. Eighteen grinned.

Seventeen had her arm stuck through the doorway. She was giving Thirteen the finger.

“So,” he asked. “You want that in writing?”


Seventeen years ago:

The first strike caught him in the mouth. Hard, blunt; a lightning line of pain cracking through his teeth. He tasted blood.

It sent him reeling, blind, thumping against the bed. He let out a noise; not quite anger, not quite fear, and raised a hand in an attempt to pull the bag away from his eyes.

That earned him a blow across the hand, something solid colliding with his thumb. He felt the bone split, and was unable to hold back the quiet whine of pain that escaped his desire for defiance. He hunched over, half-cradling his broken hand, then felt the butt of something jab against his abdomen, driving all the air from his lungs in a single, violent heave.

He lost some of the contents of his stomach, too. The lip of the bag kept them stuck around his neck.

He spent the next half second trying to simultaneously breathe and retch, before another strike impacted like a hammer blow against his shoulder.

He let the force of it push him off his knees; allowed his body to hit the floor, taking the landing on his one uninjured shoulder, and using the movement to roll himself to his feet.

He was used to pain. Used to discomfort. They’d been drilling him for this since the day he was born.

He closed his eyes. No use to him with the bag in the way. He relied on sound. His assailant moved loudly; breathed heavy. Big. Male.

He dodged the next swing by pure, blind instinct, ducking under a swing probably meant to ring his skull like a bell, and surged forwards, head first, bringing his forehead into his attacker’s crotch as hard as he could.

The man yelled.

Eighteen grinned.

Then the man’s knee made him swallow one of his teeth.

‘Worth it.’

That was the last thought he had for a while. A pair of hands clapped against his ears; made stars jump around inside his brain.

It was a relief, in a way; made him less able to register the pain of every hit. After a minute or so, he was left laying there, just quietly wondering why.

Were they going to kill him?

Had he disobeyed?

When the world finally began to swim back into focus, the first things he noticed were the shrieks. Inarticulate, horrified.

He knew that voice.

Another strike. His gut this time. Then a voice he lacked the capacity to recognize called them off.

“Enough. She’s manifested. It’s done.”

For a moment, he simply lay there, his mind a loose associative mess of pain and tired confusion. Then, they pulled the vomit and blood soaked bag off his head, and he saw something that turned the world cold.

‘Seventeen.’

She had tear marks streaking down her cheeks. They’d strapped her to a chair.

“Why?” he croaked, for all the world, just bitter. “Why’d you make her watch?”

They ignored him.

“Right,” muttered the same voice as before. “Hold him down. Let’s get this over with.”

He didn’t resist the hands as they took hold of his wrists. He was too tired. Too sore. Defiance was only worth so much.

His perspective changed when the first fist caught Seventeen about the cheek, knocking her chair sideways to the floor. Then, his very blood caught fire.

He didn’t know how long it went on. Just that he fought them with all his might for every single second of it. Every blow. Every drop of her blood across the floor.

He felt something breaking loose inside his brain.


Night:

He awoke in rage.

Hands at his shoulders. Weight against his chest. Still holding him down.

‘No.’

He struck blind. Too dark to see. Couldn’t think.

The flaring of a shield in the gloom; a ringing pain in his wrist. He let out a wordless curse, grabbed his attacker by the middle, and wrenched her off of him. Shield or no, there was no competing with his strength. He grappled; pinned her down; glared down at the figure in the dark, his heart racing, his mind scarlet.

“Let her go,” he said. It was all he had the space in his head to say. He closed his grip around her wrists, and squeezed. The shield flickered; a momentary light casting focus on his adversary’s skin.

He let Seventeen go; pulled himself backwards across his bed, ashamed.

He spent the next few minutes glaring at his feet, something painful jammed inside his throat.

It had been a long time since he’d had that nightmare.

“I-” he tried, his voice catching somewhere along the line. “I’m sorry. I’m-”

“Shh,” she murmured, the mattress shifting slightly as she slid herself across it. “Stop being a dummy.”

There was some part of him that wasn’t quite able to stop the smile at that.

“… Ok.”

He felt her head come to rest gently against his shoulder.

“Good.”

They sat together like that for a long while; just quiet; the both of them listening as his heart began to slow.

He felt her lips brush against his cheek.

“You gonna say the words?” she asked, just above a whisper.

“No,” he complained, his smile growing a fraction wider. “They feel stupid now.”

She shrugged.

“Well, I still want to hear them.”

He sighed. There was no arguing with her.

“It’s far away from us,” he recited, the warmth spreading slowly through his tired brain. “The world’s just you and me right now.”

“You promise?”

He chuckled as he felt her lips once more trace their way across his jaw.

“I promise.”

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Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

Caleb extinguished the flames around his arm with a groan. The limb was less than useless; the sensations echoing out of it too profound and varied to even be called pain; from the omni-present throbbing of the bones in his shattered shoulder, to the deep, half-numbed agony leaking from the hole in his wrist. He tried to move his fingers. Barely a twitch. He sighed.

‘That better not be permanent.’

He glanced over at the boughs currently clearing from his path, then set about binding the wound.

Caleb wasn’t completely sure why, but the trees’ movements had slowed to a crawl since the boss had made her move. Perhaps something to do with the swath of destruction that had been left in the woman’s wake. Caleb didn’t care. It was annoying.

He wrapped a scrap of his shirt around his wrist, then clumsily tied it down with his teeth. No time for blood loss today.

He pushed through.

It was a fairly short path, all things considered, opening up into yet another clearing at the end. Unlike those that had come before, however, this one wasn’t closed off. Here, the walls branched out at odd intervals, gaps between the boughs showing occasional glimpses of further clearings beyond them.

When finished elbowing his way out of his narrow corridor and into the open space, he caught sight of a figure, kneeling in the mist beside one of the smoother boughs, facing away from him. If he’d had the energy to split his focus, he might perhaps have recognized her, even obscured as she was by the fog. As it was, the flames had already begun to cloak his functioning hand before her voice cut him short.

“You’re here,” Tsuru murmured, not bothering to look at him. “Good. Now we can proceed.”

Caleb didn’t have an answer for that at first. What small part of his mind there was that had any care for the outside world was trying to figure out how to feel. Where the hell had she been when the boss had made her move? Why so absent for the entirety of the fight? Why steer him through the grove like a rat chasing cheese?

Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.

“I could have died back there, you know.”

“You could have,” she agreed. “So could I. That’s the risk you take in a fight. I allowed her burn her way through my cage in whatever direction she chose. That’s what you do when you’re fighting an enemy so much more powerful than you. You let them waste as much energy as you can.”

She paused for a moment there, muttering something quiet under her breath, her fingers trailing symbols in the sand.

“There was a risk to it, certainly,” she continued. “But it’s a risk we had to take. In the best case, she would have burned through as many trees as she could, leaving her open for me to make my move. In the worst case, one or other of us would have died. As it stands, the woman you fought had just used three of her strongest spells in succession, and was therefore weakened enough for you to pierce her shield.”

Caleb absorbed that for a moment, then shook his head.

“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“I can be. I risk whoever I must in order to see my objective done. I’m a lot like you in that regard.”

One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.

“… I hope James never figures out how terrible you are.”

A laugh.

“You and me both. Now shut up. You’re not the only person I got hurt.”

She finished tracing her patterns in the sand, murmuring another quiet sentence to herself, and then the ground began to move.

It was slow, at first, a few stray roots and vines stirring in the silt, each no thicker than a toothpick. They coalesced, condensing from a wide web that stretched across the floor into the space where she had drawn her marks. Then, they began to rise; first one, then dozens; each and every one of them coiling around the rest as they pushed themselves further from the ground.

What finally emerged bore the rough shape of a child. No larger than a four year old, the latticework of vines that made up its form growing a skin composed of tiny white flowers.

Caleb was briefly surprised at that. He’d expected whatever controlled these trees to be just as dead as they were. Then, he saw the scorch marks darting across its frame, three lines of dry, blackened petals running the surface of its chest, arm, and thigh. It was hugging itself; shaking.

No sooner had the creature emerged than Tsuru leaned in to embrace it, cooing something that Caleb lacked the Japanese to understand, her tone almost parental. He watched, impatient, as it leant its head against her shoulder. For a moment, he could have sworn he heard it crying.

Tsuru raised a hand to stroke its head, and carried on her quiet cooing as her familiar began to fold itself back inside her form, petal and root alike fading into lines of black that crawled along her hand, under her sleeve. She stood, gestured for him to follow her down one of the branching paths, and the two of them began to move.

“How many are left,” he asked. “Do we have a plan to get them away from Twenty Three?”

At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.

“Just the one,” she said. “He’s already being handled.”


Leanne:

When consciousness finally returned to Leanne’s mind, it did not do so gently. First, there was pain; a horrid, aching heat that spanned itself across her scalp, she let out a groan, followed by a low whimper as the act of movement sent a spike of fresh pain driving through her skull.

There were things around her. She could feel them clawing at her skin, the faint remnants of her shield barely holding them at bay. She felt as one of them broke through above her thigh, something jagged cutting a thin, shallow trench in her flesh.

She called her powers.

A small wave was enough to push them off; directionless, unfocused. Why was she so drained?

She tried to open her eyes. One of them obeyed.

Rocky sand. The roots of trees glimpsed through an obscuring field of mist. It was quiet. Her head ached.

A memory.

Power, destruction, rage. Searching for an enemy. The face of one of her hounds. Then fire.

‘Thirteen.’

She felt the confusion in her mind giving way to a grim, determined kind of hate.

She remembered now. The fight. His counter. His palm pressing itself against her face. The sensation as one of the eyes was seared from her skull. The terrifying lack of air within her lungs. The struggle. The dark.

She stood.

She stumbled.

She stood again.

She wasn’t done. She refused. He was less. He was not allowed to beat her.

Her shields flickered. She dug into her reserves. Empty. She dug into the reserves of the hounds. Still a little left. Good. She had feared, for a moment, that she’d been overwhelmed. Apparently not. The little shit had just been lucky enough to pierce her shields.

She looked around. Footprints in the sand. Flecks of blood, barely visible in the fog.

Good. Something for her to follow.


Caleb:

When Caleb and Tsuru arrived, it was to find the bulk of their work already done. When Caleb became aware of the shouting in the fog, he broke into a haggard run, his bruised legs aching with the effort. Then, he rounded a corner, and simply stopped.

There is a saying among filmmakers that a monster becomes less terrifying the more the audience can see it.

Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.

They were everywhere. The clearing was simply full of them; packed so densely together that some were having to climb atop the rest to avoid the crush of bodies. Some of them were vaguely human by appearance. Most of them were not.

The whispers were gone; replaced, to Caleb’s surprise, not by snarling or growls, but by almost total silence. A silence broken only by the yells of those attempting to hold them off, and the rattling of claws on metal.

It took Caleb a moment or two to find them, his eyes scanning back and forth over the mass of the swarm, and coming up empty. Then, he watched one of the creatures fall, and directed his eyes upwards.

“… Huh.”

It was a van; a perfectly normal, utterly average van.

It was also hanging some twelve feet in the air, with yet another tree simply shunted through its midsection, leaving the rear end of it sloping slightly towards the ground, one of the rear doors hanging wide, the other apparently torn off by the creatures clambering along the walls.

As Caleb watched, one of the creatures tried to climb inside, only for the man standing at the lip to send it reeling back with a bolt of greenish light, the force of it loosening its grip on the vehicle’s underside. It fell to the ground; landed amidst the swarm of flesh, and began to climb again.

Then the next monster tried force its way inside. Then the next. Then the next.

Some of them were clawing at the walls now, peeling metal loose from the chassis, and attempting to force their heads inside.

Somewhere inside the van, a child’s voice began to scream, the shadowed interior of the van flaring with purple light.

Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.

Seeing someone surrounded by the dead should never inspire such relief. Caleb hadn’t even realized how tightly he was wound until it all released.

He grinned wider and more exhaustedly than he could ever remember grinning, and raised his remaining good hand to his lips.

“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”

Just like that, the monsters stopped. Every last one of them went still. Not even fighting to stay on top of one another.

Inside the van, on the other hand, only two of the occupants turned to look at him. He recognised them now. The man at the lip glanced down at him, his gaze filling with absolute contempt. Behind the man crouched the blank faced form of Seventeen, her eyes flickering briefly towards him, before she moved to shield a boy cowering near the point where the splaying branches of the tree stabbed through the walls. At a second glance, he recognised the boy as the one he’d been told to capture.

Caleb noted absently that the purple glow seemed to emanate from a disc floating between Charlie’s hands. The boy was staring at it. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy. This couldn’t be a pleasant time to manifest. Then, his focus returned to Twenty Three. Had he always felt this light?

For her part, his partner was still in motion, taking advantage of the momentary lull to shove one of the creatures back out through the hole it had burrowed into the wall by Charlie’s head. Caleb winced. Small wonder the kid had screamed.

Only then did she turn to look at him.

For a second, no one spoke. Caleb raised his good hand in a wave.

“Uh, hey,” he called awkwardly. “I’m here to save you.”

At that, Twenty Three simply stared. The agent, on the other hand, spat at him.

“Like hell you are, kid.”

He raised an arm, another bolt of pale, greenish light gathering between his fingers; loosed before Twenty Three had any time to intervene. Caleb knew he couldn’t dodge the shot. He was too tired and too stiff to even possibly get away in time. He didn’t even try. Instead, he put a shard of James’ power into a shield, and allowed the bolt to plink lightly off his chest, as threatening as a foam dart. Then, with a wordless yell, Twenty Three tackled the agent from behind, swept his legs out from under him, and began punching him in the face.

There was something about that response which Caleb found incredibly appealing.

When the beating finally stopped, Caleb gazed up at his erstwhile attacker. For a moment, he tried to be angry. The emotion wouldn’t come. He settled for a smile.

“You’re out of your depth, man,” he said, not unkindly. “Surrender now and I promise not to feed you to the swarm.”

Somewhere among the mass of shapes, he could have sworn he heard the finger girl snicker.

The bloodied agent simply glared at him. He did not, however, attempt to stand.

At the back of the van, the purple light once again went out.

“W-what the hell is going on?” a boy’s voice asked, its tone one of a mesmerised sort of fear.

Caleb felt a momentary pang of guilt. He owed it to James to make sure this kid was okay.

“Hey,” he called, trying to put something soothing in his voice. “You Charlie Vance?”

A sniffle.

“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”

Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.

“Heh. Sorry about that. My name’s Caleb. I’m friends with kid called James Toranaga. He sent me here to get you home.”

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

“Well, I can get you to your parents, then.”

There was silence for a moment then, broken when the agent swore. Caleb ignored him.

‘Let him be pointless. Why should I care?’

Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:

“I-Is my Mom okay?” he asked. “The woman who grabbed me knocked her out.”

For a moment, Caleb contemplated lying; simply telling him she was fine. Fuck that. He was tired of lying.

“I dunno,” he admitted. “I don’t know what they would have hit her with; but I know these people don’t like killing without a reason. If you come with me, I promise I’ll stay with you until we find her.”

“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”

“Charles, wait,” the Agent cut in, his voice a little distorted from the swelling in his jaw. “Think about this. You don’t know him. He could be lying through his te-”

For the second time, the interior of the van was lit with a neon glow; this one far brighter than before. That wasn’t, in itself, entirely unexpected. What did make Caleb jump, however, was the second disc; the one that opened some three feet wide and a little to his right. For the brief moment that it was open, Caleb saw the interior of the van painted over the portal’s surface, like a window framed in solid light. He took an unconscious step back as Charlie clambered through. No sooner was the boy through than the portal snapped shut behind him.

“Did you say you were friends with James?” he asked, glancing nervously at the now much closer mass of the swarm.

To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t stay surprised for long.

“Oh, right.” He grinned. “Yeah, I am. He saved my butt tonight, if I’m honest.”

Behind them, a voice whistled.

“Portal maker, eh?” Tsuru spoke, now leaned against a tree trunk a dozen or so feet back. “Hell of a skill you have there, Charlie.”

“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”

If Tsuru responded, Caleb didn’t hear it. He became somewhat distracted when his partner started yelling.

“Caleb!” she bellowed. “You have five seconds to tell me what’s going on, or I will punch you in the dick!”

“Right, shit, yeah,” he returned his attention to her in full. “You know those stupid escape plans I keep coming up with? Well, one of em worked.” He waited for her to respond. She did not. Her face had gone completely blank. “I’m free,” he repeated. “I got out. It cost me a broken arm and a ton of pride, but I did it. I’m gonna get you out, too.”

“… Prove it.”

“What?” he asked, nonplussed.

“I said prove it,” she snapped, her voice hard. “Prove you’re not just another one of those monsters down there. Or an illusion. Prove you’re Caleb, and prove you’re free.”

Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Yeah, okay. One sec.” He spent a few moments trying to shrug out of his Jacket without having to move his crushed shoulder, then gave up. “Hey, old lady, can you help me outta this so she can see my back?”

Tsuru gave no audible response, simply striding across the short distance between them, and helping him begin to shift free of his clothes.

“As for proving I’m really me-” he let out a quiet groan as his jacket pulled agonisingly against his arm. “-Fine. Stuff only you and I know, right? How about escape attempts? Remember my first one? When I was like, nine? I tried to convince you we could just make a run for it, and you slapped me so hard one of my teeth came loose?” He chuckled. “You brought me ice cream after that. Still have no idea where you got the money. How about the knife? Three years ago, last time I tried to get away; you snapped the blade under a paving slab. I told you I’d rather die than stay like this; you just hugged me and made me promise to never say stuff like that again. I remember we didn’t hang out for a while after that, cuz that was when I realised I had a crush on you.”

For the last few words, it was a genuine struggle to hold the older girl’s gaze. For her part, Twenty Three looked slightly sad.

“You know I don’t fe—” she started, but he cut her off.

“Of course I do,” he muttered. “Doesn’t stop me having a crush. Doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

Twenty Three opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. In the end, she just nodded.

With Tsuru’s help, he finished extricating his upper body from his clothing, and stepped forwards, the creatures of the swarm parting gently before him. He turned around, and offered his partner a view of his neck, the brand scorched from his skin.

“Got a magic transfusion from a friend; used it to overload the spell. The boss can’t touch me now.”

A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.

“She can always get to us, Caleb. They’re fucking everywhere.”

Caleb turned back around, and looked his friend in the eye. There was a single tear mark streaking down her cheek. He gave her a tired laugh.

“Well, I mean, they can try,” he admitted. “But last time the boss picked a fight with me, I left her on the ground with most of her face burned off. If she ever wakes up from that, she can go for it.”

That statement did not have quite the desired effect. Instead of elation, surprise, or maybe even a laugh, all it seemed to do was deepen his partner’s worry.

“But she’s awake right now,” Twenty Three replied, her brow furrowing. “I can feel her draining me.”

For what it was worth, Caleb didn’t waste time with disbelief.

“Twenty Three,” he said urgently. “I need you to get down here right no-”

It wasn’t worth much.

Behind him, Caleb heard a final, horrifying crack, before his vision sparked with neon blue, and something sent him hurtling across the clearing. He didn’t even feel the impact as his body struck who knew what; his senses too thrown to even register the sound.

The last sight his vision registered before the darkness took him was of Tsuru lunging for the van, her swarm already beginning to move, and of Leanne’s broken form holding Twenty Three and Charlie by the shoulders. Then the three of them vanished into nothing.

She was gone.

He had failed.

He fainted.

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