Care: 6.2

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James:

For the first few hours, James simply seethed. This kind of anger was a new experience for him; unfamiliar; a rage borne not only from indignation, but care. It caught him off guard; unprepared.

It started small; inconsequential, really, just a note of frustration buried under a heaping mound of concern; the little voice inside his mind asking why Casper couldn’t have just told him. Then, when Father had gone, and James had been provided reassurance that his friend was still okay, that fear had slowly but surely began to drain away. Some of it, most of it, even, had just drained cleanly out through his feet, disturbing nothing as it passed, and leaving only a faint exhaustion in its wake. Some of his concern, however, had stuck around, and as he watched his friend’s ever more overt displays of frustration, those feelings had started finding different ways to flow.

It was when they were finally allowed in to see his grandpa that James realised he had to punch something.

Preferably something with a picture of Casper’s face on the front.

‘How could he be so. Freaking. Dumb?’

For his part, Casper had ignored it, avoiding James’ gaze just as he avoided everyone else. If anything, that just made the anger worse.

When they got home, there was no talk of going to school. School stopped being a thing during emergencies, apparently. The morning was spent with the three of them clustered together on the couch; watching a perpetual parade of Disney movies under his mother’s sporadic supervision; observing out of the corners of their eyes as a stream of sombre adults came in and out of the house, clad in suits and casual clothes alike, arguing quietly in the background. In that environment, even Bex somehow managed to be terse.

Some of the adults were more notable than the rest. A teacher from school, worry drawn in bold across her face, some folks from Peter’s office; even Charlie’s mom, looking more ragged and unkempt than James had ever seen her; a pair of deep shadows set beneath her eyes. He gave her a hug.

No one commented when Casper’s dad arrived. Peter went to meet him on the street, still not willing to let him in the house. James watched out of the corner of his eye as the men talked; Ray’s sporadic glances through the window at his son going from sad to mortified. Casper kept his eyes fixed on the TV, his eyes a little glassy. James tried to let his anger go at that. He did not succeed.

It was perhaps an hour or so after that when James decided he was done. He just couldn’t keep it all inside him any more.

He waited just long enough for Sarah to step back in, seating herself within cuddling range of Bex, before he spoke, his voice quiet.

“We can have this fight here, or we can do it in my room. Your call.”

Both Bex and Sarah turned their gaze to him at that, his sister confused, his mother carefully neutral. Casper didn’t move.

‘…Fine. We’ll do it here.’

James opened his mouth to speak. Before he got the first word out, however, Casper pushed himself off the couch, muttering something that could have been a curse, before stepping out towards the hall.

“C’mon,” he muttered. “Let’s just get it over with.”

The two of them moved through to James’ room in silence, neither of them wanting to be heard. When they eventually arrived, James found himself sitting on his bed, his hands balling into fists between his legs. For a while, Casper paced, moving from place to place around the room in search of somewhere comfortable, before coming to rest against the door, glaring at the floor beneath his feet.

“Well?” the older boy asked, his voice almost venomous. “Let’s hear it. Go ahead. Let yourself feel all smart by telling me I’m wrong.”

James looked across at him. In themselves, those words stung more than he thought they would. They felt wrong, coming from Casper’s mouth.

He didn’t reply. He tried to, but he couldn’t work out how. He wanted to yell. He wanted to cry. When he didn’t speak, Casper simply glared at him.

Minutes passed like that. Maybe longer. What the heck was he supposed to say?

In the end, it wasn’t finally reaching a decision that spurred James to speech; it was Casper letting out a little growl, and grabbing for the door handle.

It was just as he pulled the door open that James spoke, his voice quiet.

“I think… I think I’m gay.”

Casper stopped moving halfway out the door. Then, he swore quietly to himself, and stepped back inside the room. He closed the door behind him, then slumped to the floor on his rear.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I know.”

James sniffed. “It’s terrifying.”

“Why?”

“Cuz every time I think about a boy I like-” he swallowed. It did nothing at all to rid him of the lump inside his throat. “It… It makes me remember the stuff that happened. It makes me think about how scared I was. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“… Yeah.”

What came next was the hardest sentence James had ever had to say. “I-… There’s this little bit of me that thinks… Maybe if he never touched me; maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. Maybe we’d be talking about girls right now.”

Casper shot him a scowl. There was less anger to it, now. Just a little.

“You know that’s not how it works, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” James wiped his nose with a sleeve. “I still think it sometimes, though.”

For a while, the two of them were quiet. When Casper spoke, his tone was far softer.

“I’m sorry I pushed you about that,” he said. “I really am.”

“Yeah, sure,” James replied. “It’s done now, anyways.” He took a breath, then gave his friend a cold look. “So, what the heck is going on with you and Father?”

At that, Casper just groaned.

“I don’t even know,” he muttered. “I think he’s trying to seduce me? I don’t think he’s had many people say no to him before.”

“But why are you letting him try?”

Casper shrugged.

“Like I said to your grandma. He’s almost good, you know? He wants to help. I think he really thinks he is helping… I dunno. I just wanna find out how he got so broken.”

James shook his head.

“Why do you care?”

Casper sighed.

“Cuz I want him to be better.”

James cocked his head at that. Something in the phrasing felt odd.

“You don’t… You don’t like him, do you?” Casper didn’t respond, his cheeks flushing slightly. James shuddered. “Cas, that’s just wrong.”

“It’s not like what you’re thinking,” Casper replied. “He-… When he used his mind control thing… It made him look… pretty. Like, really, really pretty. That never really went away. And it’s… I dunno. It’s weird, when you can feel that someone likes you, you know? It’s like…” he looked across at James’ face, and must have registered the disgust written plain as day across it, because he raised a hand in a weird, semi-placating gesture. “Look, I was never gonna act on it, okay? I’m not stupid. I’m never gonna let him get that close, and I’m not gonna give him that chance to take over. I don’t trust him. I’m never gonna trust him.”

James didn’t know what to say to that. It made him want to throw up. For a while, he simply stared.

“If I asked you,” he said eventually, his voice almost pleading. “As your friend, to break it off… Would you do it?”

Casper’s gaze shifted to the floor.

“… Yeah, probably.” James opened his mouth at that, but the other boy forestalled him. “Look, I know this sounds wrong, and I get that you’re worried, but-”

“Really, Cas? Cuz it sounds like a total creeper’s trying to make you like him, and it sounds like it’s working. You can’t make that not sound wrong!”

Once again, Casper groaned.

“What would it take to make you be okay with this?”

“I’d be okay with it if you told Father you never wanted to see him again.” James thought about it for a moment. “And then he moved to Seattle. And stopped existing.”

He wasn’t quite sure why the words made Casper laugh.

“Look,” he said. “You’re right. I could break it off. Maybe I even should. But I don’t want to, and even if I did, I don’t think it’d make him stop. You haven’t seen inside his head. He’s pretty determined.”

“… You know that doesn’t make it any better, right?” James asked. “I mean, I get it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t make it okay. I think we’re messing with stuff way, way bigger than we are.”

Casper snorted.

“It’s hard not to when the big stuff follows you home.”

James snickered.

“I know, right?” He slumped backwards at that, letting his body flop down across his mattress and gazing at the ceiling. “… You know what the biggest thing I learned today is?”

“No idea,” said Casper. “What?”

“That I don’t really know you anymore, do I?” He looked down just in time to see the older boy shrug.

“Sure you do. I’m the same me I always was.”

James rolled his eyes.

“Okay, sure. But, like, I don’t know what you can do now, do I? I mean, when I said you couldn’t help at the hospital, I meant it. But then off you went and you-” he made a grappling gesture in the air with his hands. “-You helped, you know? I had no idea you could do that.”

“Dude,” Casper chuckled. “I know you didn’t mean it that way, but ouch.”

James ignored him.

“My point is, I didn’t know you could help me cuz of secrets. So, maybe secrets suck. And maybe, if we get rid of them, we can help each other more.”

The silence that followed lasted a long while. When Casper finally responded, he did so with a sigh.

“So that’s the deal, huh?” he asked. “No more secrets? You’re gonna tell me your side too?”

James nodded.

“Yeah. That’s the deal.”

“You promise not to freak out?”

“Only if you promise too.”

A snort.

“Yeah,” said Casper. “I promise.”

The older boy closed his eyes. After a second or two, so did James, relaxing back against his bed.

“… So,” he murmured. “Who goes first?”


Father:

Father looked up at the side of the building, and for the second time that night, pulled out his phone to check the address.

‘They’re making it hard to come and see you. Can we meet up tonight?’

He scrolled past the first of Casper’s messages, and onto the time and place. He frowned.

Well, it was certainly the right location. But why in the name of all had Casper wanted to meet him here? And at one AM, no less. He shook his head. Perhaps it was some effort to keep the boy’s caretakers off his tail. He supposed he’d soon find out. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and stepped inside.

The place was positively derelict; dry rot and summer baked mildew stains crawling across cracked concrete walls, the floor covered in layers of detritus left behind by generations of either vagrants, or teenagers using the place as a hideaway. Father cast a cursory glance over the lower floor; empty, but for a rusted through freight elevator, and a set of industrial steps leading to the second level. No one in sight.

“Casper,” he called, letting the door slide to a close behind him and stepping towards the stairs. “You around? I know I’m a bit early.”

It was around when he caught sight of the steel production table that currently sat wedged above the staircase, the heavy metal handrails warping into a glove around it, that he received a reply.

“He’s not here,” called a voice; young, male, unfamiliar. “Come on up. I wanted to talk to you alone.”

Father raised an eyebrow at that. Strangeness upon strangeness. He paused at the foot of the stairs, and tapped his foot lightly on the floor. The spell that followed was something like a pulse; a wave of perception that pushed itself first across the floor, then out into the superstructure like a sonar burst. A second later, he had the rough layout of the place.

The floor above was open-plan; nothing but work stations from side to side of the complex, barring a small cluster of rooms to one corner that had once been either offices or storerooms. One of those rooms held life; the pulse flowing up through a pack of what felt like rodents. On the roof above, he could feel something human sized. He raised an eyebrow at that. It was odd. The voice had come from the factory floor, yet his spell said the area was empty. Was the person on the roof projecting themselves?

He took a moment to ready a barrier, then proceeded up the stairs. He found the answer to his confusion soon enough.

‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Not projecting. Flying. No surfaces for the spell to move through.’

The speaker was a boy; a familiar one, too, shaggy black curls framing an almond shaped face, his skin tone a touch more olive than the standard post-european hue. A petite frame and slender build not at all concealed by an oversized hoodie and baggy pajama pants. Eleven or twelve, at most.

‘Cute.’

Out loud, Father simply said:

“I know you. James, right? The new Toranaga boy.”

For a moment, the boy didn’t respond, simply gazing at him, arms crossed, his face caught in an expression that wasn’t quite hostile enough to be a glare, but that Father still wished could be a little closer to a smile. The boy must look so pretty when he smiled.

“Yeah,” James said eventually. “That’s right.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” As he spoke, he resumed his climbing of the stairs, reaching the top, and beginning to cross the distance between them. He only got a step or two before the boy raised a hand, palm out.

“Wait,” he called. “I want you to promise you won’t use that happy stuff on me. Casper said you wouldn’t do it if you promised.”

Father frowned at that, his confusion touched by a momentary note of annoyance, but he nodded.

“No need to worry yourself about that. I happen to know your family would hunt me to the ends of the earth if I tried to use my light on you. Not that it would harm you if I did. Nonetheless, I won’t use it. I promise.”

He waited a moment for James to respond. When none was forthcoming, he took a tentative step forward. The boy raised no objection, so he walked to a space some twelve or so feet from the boy, and seated himself at a work-station. As he moved, he noted the old traceries on the floor, the faint sour tang hanging in the air. The site of a ritual? Yet another set of questions to be added to the pile.

He took a second to get comfortable on his makeshift seat, and shot the boy a smile.

“Well, you’ve certainly piqued my interest,” he said, his tone light. “Not everyday I find myself in a ritual site in the middle of Manhattan with a flying boy inside and someone hiding on the roof.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the ceiling high above. “That’s a fascinating power you have there, by the way.”

Again, for a while, James seemed content to simply gaze at him, arms folded, eyebrows drawing together in an oh so kissable scowl. Had Father expected him to be surprised, he would have been disappointed. Eventually, he spoke.

“I wanted to talk to you about Casper.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you won’t do anything to hurt him.”

‘Oh,’ Father realized, a grin spreading unbidden across his lips. ‘My word. He came here to protect his friend. That is so very sweet.’

“Nothing of the sort,” he murmured, raising a hand as if to wave the idea away. “I promise you. Hurting Casper is the last thing I would want.” On a spur of idle curiosity, he gestured towards the boy’s still levitating form. “So, that power of yours. Have you had the opportunity to develop it? I can’t imagine you’ve had it long.”

Another hesitation, James apparently deciding whether or not to reply, before giving him a resigned shrug.

“About a month,” he admitted. “Started training a couple weeks ago. So what is your plan for Casper?”

Father chuckled.

“Do I need one? He’s a nice boy. A talented mage. Can’t I just enjoy his company?”

“It’s more than just hanging out if you have to bribe him with a house. Is it cuz you can’t control him?”

Father sighed, trying as best as he could to push his disappointment aside. He had hoped that this younger Toranaga might not be as judgemental as the rest.

“My light doesn’t control people, James,” he replied, his tone deliberately even. “Happiness isn’t that overwhelming of a thing.” He paused to allow space for a reply. None was forthcoming, so he continued. “But, yes. I will admit, Casper’s reaction worries me. I don’t enjoy the idea that my light could cause a person pain. I want to find out why.”

“Okay,” James muttered. “Well… What if I told you. Would you promise to leave him alone?”

Father raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you know?”

For a moment, the boy’s scowl grew very dark.

“… Yes.”

“Then tell me.”

Before Father had even finished, James was shaking his head.

“No,” he replied. “First, you promise not to talk to him again.”

Now it was Father’s turn to scowl.

“Why should I?” he asked. “I’m not going to cause him any harm. I’ve never been anything but kind.”

“He told me about you kissing him,” the boy snapped. “I saw his phone. I know you asked for pictures! I know you wanna-” for a moment, it seemed like James might gag. Father waited for him to finish. He did not. He simply glared.

“I want to what?” Father replied eventually, his irritation having built itself to a peak. Why did they always have to judge without bothering to understand? “To fuck him? Yes. Yes I do. And if that’s what he wants too, then what’s so wrong with it?”

Whatever James had intended as his response, it seemed he couldn’t get it out. Father wasn’t sure he’d ever seen rage like that on someone so young. He opened his mouth, attempted to speak, but all that came out was a sickened sort of croak. Two more attempts; still nothing. Eventually, the boy raised a shaking hand to his face.

At first, Father thought he was scratching himself, a momentary concern flitting through his mind as he watched the fingers dig. Then, James’ nails found what they were looking for. He peeled the covering loose, the marks of purity and pain on full display.

“That’s what’s wrong with it,” he muttered. “Asshole.”

It was at that moment when Father’s anger failed. How could he blame the boy for judging him after that? James had no way of knowing any better.

“Oh, little one,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how scared you must ha-”

“Shut up,” James spat. “All I want to hear from you is that you’ll stay away from Casper.”

Father sighed.

“James,” he murmured. “You need to understand. I don’t want to hurt him the way that they hurt you. I don’t want anything if he doesn’t want it too. I would rather die than do that to him. To anyone. But I cannot promise not to speak to him again. All I can promise is that it isn’t what you think.”

While he had been speaking, James had simply watched him, a cold kind of anger burning in his eyes. When he was done, the boy let out a huff.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You really are broken, aren’t you.” Father took the insult on the cheek. He couldn’t bring himself to blame him. Eventually, however, James spoke again. “… There’s no way for me to beat you, is there?” he asked, trying to mask a sniffle. “You’re too much stronger than me, right?”

Father shook his head, his heart heavy.

“It makes me sad that you would want to,” he replied. “But no. There’s nothing. You don’t have nearly the experience to fight a man like me.”

James wiped his nose with a sleeve.

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I figured.” The silence that followed that was a unique kind of awkward, broken only when the boy continued: “That’s why I’ve been charging this one up.”

It may not have often looked it, but Father was a very agile man. Hundreds of years of practical combat experience, combined with physical training, and a natural reaction speed had rendered him about as fast as an unempowered human was capable of being. He dodged the boy’s opening strike with ease.

Dodging, however, was a response best suited to fists. James’ volley was closer to a freight train.

For the first half-second or so, Father was physically blinded; his shield splitting into so many fragmented shards of light that his vision was nought but bloom.

What that meant, unfortunately, was that Father lacked the context to recognize his body striking the far wall; the gust sending him through concrete, brick and steel like a bullet shot through plaster board.

What he did register, however, was the sound of a second wall crumbling underneath him. He struck the ground, bounced, and collided with something new.

When the stars finally stopped snapping before his eyes, Father became aware of the inside of a shed, the hull of a construction vehicle now wrapped around his shoulders, and the taste of blood inside his mouth.

A little groggy, he turned his face to look at the hole in the wall through which he’d come. He could see the sky now, along with the figure standing on the roof of the building from which he’d been thrown, cast in silhouette against the stars. He watched, slowly trying to pull his thoughts together, as the figure stepped from the rooftop, and dropped to ground level, landing on her feet with a thud, before making her way towards him in a sprint. He had just enough time to register a teenage girl with a baseball bat, before he found his body being wrenched from the chassis of the vehicle, and carried back outside. He felt the handle of something metal underneath his chin.

From his new perspective, he had an unimpeded view as the youngest mage of the Toranaga bloodline floated into view through the hole in the factory wall.

Even if Father had still had his senses at that moment, he wouldn’t have dared to fight. There was something about the way James hung there, the power seeping from his eyes like a mist of glowing tourmaline, that made him seem almost otherworldly.

“Father,” the elementalist called down. “I want you to listen to me really, really carefully. If you ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

“Also,” said the girl currently holding him aloft. “Just so you know. I was totally filming that.”


Author’s Note: I’m going to be honest. I am not 100% sure about this chapter. I worry that I might be presenting my subject matter in a somehow flawed manner, which I really do not want to do, particularly with issues of such real-world gravity. I hope that it’s just nerves, but if you can see what you think to be a flaw, please let me know.

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Aid: 5.9

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James:

James Toranaga was still in his pajamas. He hadn’t bothered to change. The matter at hand was too important. He soared fast and low above the moonlit city, his phone pressed up against his ear. He’d already given his grandparents Charlie’s home address.

“Tasha’s heading across town now,” Tsuru’s voice spoke from her end of the phone line, forced calm permeating every note of it. “Whatever you do, you can’t let Caleb start until she’s there to support you.”

“We don’t have time for that, Baba,” James muttered. “We need to get this done as fast as we ca-”

“James,” she cut him off, her voice hard. “There is every single chance that this is all a con. Suddenly being in a rush doesn’t change that. In fact, if I wanted to make someone abandon their plans and do whatever I said without thought, then pretending everything was falling apart is exactly what I would do. You get there, you wait, and you only let him do this once Tasha’s there to snap his fucking neck if he betrays you.”

James listened, he absorbed, and he shook his head. His grandma had a point. He wished she didn’t, but she did. He wished his heart would just stop pounding in his ears.

“… Fine.”

Tsuru gave the boy a single affirmative grunt, then hung up.

He caught sight of his school building coming into view below, and altered course. Not too far now.

It was less than half a minute before James was at the factory building. The sliding gate was open. Caleb must already be here. He shot in through the tiny opening, pivoted towards the stairs, and stopped. Something on the upper floor was glowing; a faint, ghostly green light casting the railings that lined the stairway into a misty sort of shadow. He could hear Caleb moving about up there, the older boy muttering either incantations or bundled swear words rapidly under his breath.

… Maybe it’d be better if he just stayed down here for now. Whether he was lying or not, Caleb was sure to want to set this thing in motion the moment he turned up. Maybe he should just stay out of sight till Tasha arrived. No need to start a fight. He shot another troubled glance up the stairwell, then sighed, and reluctantly drifted down towards to the floor.

The moment his feet touched the ground, the glow from the upper level flared, shifting from a neon green to an almost cobalt blue. The light grew brighter; far brighter. He sucked in a breath, and the blueish mist seeping down the stairway almost seemed to pulse.

“James?” asked Caleb’s voice from above, a little too quick in the delivery to be genuinely calm. “That you? Get up here. I’m almost done setting up.”

‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘There goes that idea.’

Out loud, he only managed a mutter.

“Not till Tasha gets here,” he said. “Sorry.”

Caleb’s reaction was less severe than James had been expecting. The older boy’s head poked out over the metal railing, shooting him a glare. James held his gaze as best he could. It would have been easier if holding off didn’t feel like such a big betrayal.

After a few seconds, Caleb swore under his breath, moving back away from James’ view.

“Fine,” he growled. “We’ll wait. Just stay down there and start pulling your power together. You can at least be ready for the damn thing when she gets here.”

James opened his mouth to respond to that, then thought better of it. Instead, he simply complied, sitting himself cross-legged on the ground, and digging into his power as best as he was able.

The next three minutes may well have been the slowest in James’ life. Caleb was done with his setup in only a dozen seconds or so, and from there, moved to sit at the top of the staircase, his legs fidgeting in place as he scowled down at the boy below, his fists clenching and unclenching harder by the second. James tried not to look at him. It set his teeth on edge. It didn’t help that he had no idea what ‘pulling his power together’ was even supposed to be.

He considered asking Caleb, but just the look on the older boy’s face told him no. Best not to push any triggers at all, in that regard. He took his best guess, and dug into his powers.

Nothing happened.

James felt Caleb’s eyes boring into him as he sat there, letting the seconds tick by.

Eventually, Caleb closed his eyes, and let out a long, slow sigh.

“You know that feeling you get when you use a spell?” he asked. “Like there’s something leaving your body?”

“… Yeah?”

“Try to do that,” Caleb muttered. “But do it without actually casting the spell, so the energy doesn’t have anywhere to go but you.”

James gave the older boy an awkward sort of nod, and tried.

It felt weird, trying to access his magic without really using it; like opening a faucet and trying to will the water to stay exactly where it was. It took a few tries, Caleb’s fidgeting growing more and more pronounced by the second, before he finally felt something change inside his form. It was like some kind of pressure; like a layer of viscous goop pressing its way out beneath his skin. The glow above them grew stronger still.

Seeing that, Caleb’s twitching slowed, just a little.

It was the sound of feet thudding hard and fast against distant pavement that alerted the two of them to Tasha’s eventual arrival. James turned his head to glance out through the open doorway, and thought he could spot her silhouette in among the distant gloom.

“Fucking finally,” Caleb muttered, pushing off of the step with his hands and rising to his feet. “James, c’mon. We need to get this thing started right now.”

For a moment, James considered holding the line. That line of thought didn’t last long. It felt like too much of a dick move, continuing to delay it all when Tasha was literally in sight. He pushed himself upright and followed Caleb up the stairs at a jog.

A part of him had wandered what could be producing such a glow. That part of him was vaguely disappointed when it turned out to be a water bottle. Not even a nice one, either; just one of those mountain springwater bottles you could get for like, a dollar fifty from any store in history. He could still see the crinkled label on the side, advertising a twist of lemon flavoring.

He made no comment when Caleb picked him up, and began carrying him across the floor towards the thing, presumably in an effort to avoid disturbing the intricate web of glyphs, feathers, and a dozen or so other assorted knick knacks that now lay strewn across the already untidy factory floor.

“… What’s the bottle for?” he asked, wobbling a little on his feet as Caleb dumped him unceremoniously on the floor beside it.

“It holds the potion,” Caleb grunted, gesturing at a space in the central glyph devoid of any larger markings. “Sit there. I’ll get us started now. Just a warning, this is probably gonna hurt like hell. The mage I learned it from said it was like a cattle prod to the kidneys.”

James merely shook his head at that as he took his seat in the centre of it all. He tried to ignore the way the patterns on the floor began to shift the moment he took his place, moving along the concrete floor like leaves on water.

“Yeah. I figured it’d suck,” he muttered, his tone grim. “Doesn’t matter right now. Just do it.”

Caleb apparently needed no further pushing. He moved back outside the still moving ring of glyphs, oddities and symbols, and gave his incantation. It wasn’t long; just a few words, really, in a language that sorta sounded like arabic. For his part, James clenched his teeth in preparation for the pain. What he got was underwhelming.

It started as an ache, at first. Small, just a barely noticeable tingling at the tips of his fingers, like putting his tongue against a battery. It spread slowly up his hands, then his arms, before it hit the point where that pressure still lingered beneath his skin. Where the two sensations mixed, it almost began to tickle. The misty light flowing all around him changed its hue again, becoming a vibrant, almost electrical kind of blue.

‘Huh. Weird.’

From the floor below, the sound of stomping feet grew louder, accompanied by a metallic rattle as something slammed against the tin of the door in passing.

James cocked his head towards the stairwell where Caleb stood, confused.

“Hey, I thought you said this stuff was gonna hurt.”

Caleb opened his mouth at that, but before he had a chance to answer, there was sound like snapping metal, and Tasha’s body collided against his chest with what looked like the force of a freight train. Whatever he had been about to say was lost as the air left his lungs in a sharp, unintended wheeze, his eyes going wide with the sudden pain.

James watched, more than a little taken aback, as she grabbed the staggering boy by the shoulder, and proceeded to simply slam him against the wall.

“James,” she said, her voice completely calm. “You better tell me you’re okay, or I will snap him like a twig.”

“… I’m fine.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb coughed long and hard as Tasha let him go, slumping forward against himself, and pressing his hands against his knees for balance. It took him a few seconds just to catch his breath.

“C-christ, Tasha,” he managed. “What the hell was that for?”

“We told you to wait till I was here, asshat,” came Tasha’s reply. “The whole point was to have me here to stop you hurting James.”

Whatever Caleb’s reply had been, it was lost on James. He found his attention drawn inward, as the glowing light that filled the room converged upon his skin, and that gentle tingle within his veins began turning itself to spikes.

The first wave was enough to simply shake him, over too soon to really register as pain so much as a spasm across his form. He squeaked.

To Caleb and Tasha’s credit, the noise halted their brewing row in its tracks. He had just enough time to register Tasha’s voice asking if he was okay, before the second spasm hit, and his body curled in upon itself like a knot pulling taut. He screwed his eyes shut, and did the best he could to restrict the noise to a low, quiet whine. This one wasn’t over quick. He counted at least five long, agonizing seconds before it ended. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sheen of sweat drops dotted along his hands, each emitting a vibrantly colored glow.

“… Is there anything we can do?” Caleb’s voice asked from somewhere nearby, sounding almost awkward.

“… Yeah,” he mumbled back, watching as the film of liquid began to move, forming a dozen thin, cobalt colored lines as they trickled across his skin towards the bottle. “Get out. Both of you. Right now.”

“… Put something in your mouth,” Caleb muttered. “Stop you biting off your tongue.”

As the third spasm hit, James could only hope they had heeded his request.


Caleb:

Neither teen spoke as they stood together at the roadside. There wasn’t anything to say. It was tense, oddly charged; the two of them torn between mutual aggression, and trying to ignore the whimpered sounds of pain still ringing out from the factory floor. Caleb made the best attempt he could not to let it bother him, simply slipping his hands into his pockets, and digging his nails into his palms. This wasn’t right. None of it was right.

“… When today’s over,” he murmured, half to Tasha, half just to cover the sounds of retching from inside. “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can.”

“I’m going to,” Tasha agreed through gritted teeth, her eyes fixed on the road. “Just trust me on that. It’s happening.”

It took far too long for those awful sounds to stop. When they finally did, Caleb turned back towards the door, and took a step towards it. He felt Tasha’s hand closing around his wrist, and turned to meet her glare with his.

“I wanna make sure he’s okay,” he said evenly. “Let me go.”

Tasha didn’t budge.

Caleb barely had to give a thought before his free hand had cloaked itself in flame. He felt Tasha’s fingers squeeze a little tighter at his wrist.

“Stop it,” muttered a small voice from the open doorway, caught between bitterness and exhaustion. Caleb turned, and saw James, looking smaller and more ruffled than he’d ever seen him before. The boy stepped across the short distance between them, his arms wrapped in tight around his form. He sniffled.

“… You okay?” Tasha asked.

The look James gave her could only be described as withering.

“Peachy.”

They both pretended not to notice the tear marks streaking down along his face.

James unfolded his arms, and pressed the water bottle into Caleb’s hands, perhaps now one fifth full of some glowing, almost pearlescent fluid.

“Go save our friends,” he muttered. “I’m going back to bed.”

With that, James pushed past them, and stumbled his way out into the street, heading for his home.

Caleb gave Tasha a look. She simply nodded, before stepping up, and hefting the boy up off the ground onto her back.

“… Don’t need your help,” he grumbled, already burying his face against her shoulder. Tasha gave the boy a hug. No further complaints were made.

“See him home. We’ll meet up later on.”

“Yeah.”

Caleb watched the other two fading away into the night, and turned his gaze to the bottle with a sigh. This had better work.

He raised the bottle to his lips, and gagged. It was, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing he’d ever tasted. He swallowed.

‘Oh,’ murmured that little voice inside his brain. ‘So that’s what being a god feels like.’

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Aid: 5.7

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James:

The silence that followed Caleb’s proclamation was a long one, Interrupted only by the bopping of Tuva’s music in her headphones. For the first few moments, no one moved. James’ grandparents still gazing across at the older boy, their expressions slightly stern. Tasha still looked angry. Eventually, Caleb lowered his eyes to the table, his cheeks a little red.

“Wow,” he muttered. “That sounds so dumb out loud.”

Across the table, Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his chair, his fingers tenting against his chin. James went back to fiddling with his potatoes. He wasn’t really hungry.

“War with whom?” asked Tsuru, calm as ever.

“The elves, I think,” Caleb replied. “Growing up at the training place, you’d catch like, these little bits of conversation when the masters didn’t think we were close enough to hear.” He chuckled. “I never heard much, but it always sounded like they wanted elves to die.”

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

“Of course that’s what they want,” he rumbled. “Some damn fool war that won’t do any good for anyone. When do people ever want anything else?”

“Wait,” James asked. “Aren’t elves, like, those people who tried to kidnap me? Why’s fighting them a bad idea?”

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

“I’m afraid that’s most of them, really,” Tsuru sighed. “Their society runs off of those kidnappings.”

“Uhm, what?” James asked, cocking an eyebrow at his grandmother. He wasn’t the only one looking at her strangely. Caleb and Tasha followed suit. “How can they need-”

“It’s a long story,” she cut him off. “And one we try to keep quiet.” She hesitated for a moment there, before sighing and continuing. “Well, you’ll need to know at some point; you’re already involved, after all. It’s pretty well known that the elves kidnap people, but what isn’t so well known is why.” At that, she picked her water glass off the table and drained it. Then, she leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and spoke.

“In the simplest terms, they think of us as livestock.” She paused, one eye drifting open to see if anyone was going to interject. No one did, so she continued. “You three already know that some of the stronger spells out there need rituals, and rituals need ingredients. Well, for the more powerful rituals out there, those ingredients are people.”

For a while after that, no one really spoke. Tsuru once again went quiet, giving the three of them a moment to absorb the implications.

“… What kind of spells?” James asked. “What were they gonna do to me?”

His grandmother opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. Whatever her compunction, Hideyoshi didn’t share it.

“A kid as powerful as you?” his grandfather rumbled. “They’d probably save you for the big one. Use your soul to punch a hole into whatever place magic comes from and flood their world with energy. Would have kept their planet saturated for a couple of years, at least; made every one of them stronger.” Tsuru shot him a glare, and he scowled. “We can’t sugarcoat this. Not if we want him to be informed.”

“… Oh,” James mumbled. What else was there for him to say? From the seat beside him, he felt Tasha’s fist bump gently against his shoulder. He gave her a smile. Today was a weird day.

“They used to sacrifice other elves, of course,” Hideyoshi continued, picking up for Tsuru, herself still busy scowling at him. “But then they reached the top, and I guess they started wondering why they had to sacrifice each other when someone else would do. So, they started looking for a replacement. First, they tried it vegan; twisting things with spells; growing mushrooms into vessels just elvish enough to carry a soul worth selling. That didn’t work out so well. It turned out the mushrooms didn’t like having their souls removed, and were willing to fight them over it.” He chuckled. “And that, kids, is where goblins come from.”

“… Mushroom men?” James asked. “Really?”

“Not men,” Hideyoshi clarified. “They’re agender; reproduce by spores. That’s another reason it didn’t work out so well.”

“Uh, why?”

“A lot of sacrifices need specific things,” Tsuru supplied, finally calling off her glare and turning her gaze to her grandson. “Sometimes, they need someone who’s suffered burns. Sometimes, they need to be a certain age. Sometimes, it’s a loss of virginity.” She shrugged. “You can’t have virgins in a species without sex.”

James giggled at that. He wasn’t even really sure why. He just did. It sounded funny.

“So,” Hideyoshi continued. “The elves went looking for something new. A better race of cattle. Eventually, on a world far away from their home reality, on a planet with far less magic, they found a race of cavemen.” He sighed. “We were perfect. Weak enough that we couldn’t defend ourselves. Basic enough that they could pretend we were simple monkeys. Just one problem, really. Our souls weren’t big enough to be worth a damn. So they added some Elf to the mix.”

“Wait,” James asked. “Are you saying-”

“They fucked us, James,” the older man grunted. “Just to make something a little bit more valuable. Be glad they did it, too. We wouldn’t have any mages if they hadn’t.”

“… Eww.”

“Then, they gave us the facial marks,” Hideyoshi continued. “Easiest way to tell if someone fits the conditions for a ritual. They put a spell on the planet to cattle brand anyone who’s born here.” He gestured absently at his face as he spoke, moving his fingers from point to point. “Extreme pain, virginity, joy, murder, surviving a deathly illness. The list goes on, and they all go right on your face, for all the world to see.”

It took James a second or two to process that. The words just kind of bounced around inside his head. He felt gross. Really, really gross. His grandfather was still talking, but the words weren’t even registering inside his brain.

“Are-” he tried, his voice cracking slightly. Hideyoshi stopped speaking, turning to look at him. “Are you telling me I’ve… I’ve got those-” He struggled for words, then gave up. “Those things on my face… Just cuz some mage somewhere wanted a barcode?”

There was silence around the table at that. Hideyoshi gazed first at James, then at Tsuru, before regretfully turning back to James. He let out a long sigh, and nodded.

“Can anyone tell me why we’re not fighting these guys, already?” Tasha asked. “They sound like assholes.”

“Because they’re strong,” answered Tsuru. “They live on a group of worlds practically drowning in ambient magic, and their mages are stronger by far than almost anything we have to offer. The only advantages we have are better technology, and superior numbers, neither of which is of much use when we have barely any mages who can make a dimensional hole wide enough to travel through.”

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Fighting the elves is a losing proposition,” he agreed. “Even if we found a way to win, the war itself would last decades, and we’d lose far more people than the kidnappings cost us.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how my bosses see it,” Caleb muttered.

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his voice even. “Honestly, I don’t care if they’re right or not. I just wanna get me and my partner free. They can burn in hell for all I care.”

James gazed down at his plate, barely listening. He didn’t care. It was all too big; wars and plots and politics. His head felt muddled enough as it was. Every few moments, his thoughts kept pulling him back to his marks, and the image of his mother trying not to cry the first time she’d helped to hide them.

He was vaguely aware of the conversation moving on; his grandparents discussing something about an egyptian and some portals, with occasional comment from the others. He ignored them. He was too busy feeling sick.

It was a few minutes before a splash of water on his face pulled his attention back into the present. He turned his gaze towards the culprit, already glowering.

“Oi,” Hideyoshi grunted, dipping his fingers back into his glass in preparation to splash him again. “You awake there, James? It’s important that you know this. Now, it’s best if we do the ritual on Wednesday night, three days from now. That should give our contacts time to set up an escape route these people won’t be able to tra-”

“Sounds good,” James cut him off, pushing himself up from the table. “But I can’t be here right now. I gotta punch something or I’m gonna throw up.”

Neither Hideyoshi nor Tsuru seemed to know how to answer that; both of them simply gazing at him, apparently surprised. Caleb just shrugged.

He was already walking away when Tasha’s voice called after him.

“Second door, down the hall. Grab some gloves so you don’t mess up your hands. We can tell you this stuff later.”

“Thanks, Tasha.”

With that, he left the others to their planning, and headed off to vent.


Manhattan Island. Evening.

The organizer didn’t like this city. It was too crowded; all those different motivations and ideas swirling around in their brains. All that possibility. It set her teeth on edge.

It made it even worse that the place was big, of course; more than large enough for the government to hold a presence here. Said government would be even more alert now, in the wake of that catastrophe with the elves. Yet another reason to remain on edge.

She checked her phone, and took a left at the next set of traffic lights. She sighed. Ah, well. If she got this last inspection done with quickly, she could be out of there before the night set in. She’d like that. It was better, sleeping on the road.

This last one had better have more potential than the others, she thought. New York would be a waste of time, otherwise. A whole day spent ticking off the targets on her list, sniffing out which could be a viable acquisition, and almost all of it wasted. Most of these people didn’t have the energy to fuel a fireball, let alone anything of any scale. Of all the dozens of items on her list, she’d thus far only found one who might have the power to back up the traits required.

Hopefully this last one would change that, though. This last one had a pedigree. A parent in the government: One Jacqueline Vance; the portal maker. The organizer could only hope the son would be something like his mother.

She followed her phone’s directions down a side lane, and found her mind turning to the past few weeks.

It had been hectic, of course, trying to scout out every city on their list in the few weeks time they’d had. She couldn’t remember her last good night’s sleep. It would have been easier, of course, if they’d had more hunting birds to work with, but limitations were what they were. Breeding the things hadn’t been as tenable as they’d hoped.

She pulled the car to a stop along a side street, and stepped out to approach her final mark. For the last few inspections, she’d simply claimed to be a pizza girl given the wrong address. She had to be more careful here. Potential or no, this one lived with powerful people. It would be best not to even let them see her.

The scouting reports on this one’s file told her his bedroom was on the second floor, facing away from the street itself. Easy enough. A quick scan of the street showed her a good dozen or so convenient places to climb.

Getting onto the roof was child’s play. One spell to ease the climb, another to make spotting her more difficult. She didn’t even have to jump to make the crossing to the right house. The buildings here were connected; crushed together by the crowded nature of the cityscape. She crossed the roof, peaked down over the edge to find the right window, then eased herself down to look inside.

The boy was studying; one arm resting on the pages of a textbook as he worked his way through an answer sheet. He didn’t even notice as she slid the window open for the few moments it took her hunting bird to take a sniff.

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

She slid the window closed, and took her leave. When she got back to her car, she found the boy’s name in her list, and put a tick beside it. Charles Vance.

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

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Aid: 5.6

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Caleb:

“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.

She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.

“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

James stood between them, a little awkward.

“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”

He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.

“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”

Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.

He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.

Christ.

He shook her hand.

“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”

At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.

James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.

He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.

It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.

He tried not to be jealous. He really did.

“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”

He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.

After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.

It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.

There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.

It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.

“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”

Caleb snorted.

“Fuck you too, Tasha.”

From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.

“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.

Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.

Outwardly, however, he only sighed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”

At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.

“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”

Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.

“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”

“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”

Again, Caleb only shrugged.

“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”

“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”

“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”

For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Yes, dear.”

“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”

Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.

He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.

“It’s fine.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”

“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”

It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.

Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?

There was a surprising bitterness to that.

For her part, Tsuru was nodding.

“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”

“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”

If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.

“Show me.”

Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.

They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.

He dropped the covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.

A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.

“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”

“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”

“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”

At his back, Tsuru simply swore.

“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”

“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”

Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.

“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”

Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.

“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”

The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.

Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.

James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.

Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.

The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.

It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.

“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”

“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”

“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”

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Dissonance: 4.10

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James:

“I don’t know who did it,” he muttered, still glaring at the floor. “Just some guy in a bathroom.”

James hesitated for a moment, then began to raise his head towards his grandfather, before Hideyoshi stopped him short.

“Don’t,” the old man grunted. “Please don’t look at me right now.”

James considered that for a moment, before that sense of betrayal won over, and he looked the man in the eye.

For what it was worth, Hideyoshi didn’t flinch. His face was set and red, every muscle standing out in contrast beneath his skin. His eyes were wide. He looked back at his grandson, and James wasn’t even sure if he was seeing him.

Huh, he thought. So that’s what hatred looks like.

Hideyoshi held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath, just the tiniest touch of shame cutting through his voice. James watched as the man stepped away, rolling his head a little on his shoulders, his hands slowly unclenching once more from fists. It didn’t work.

“Fuck!” Hideyoshi bellowed, swinging an arm towards the nearest of the couches lining the training mat. James thought he saw a flash of something red dash forth from his grandfather’s hand, before the couch exploded, erupting with a whumpf in a plume of light and heat.

James stepped forwards towards the counter-top, and rested on his elbows against it, watching. How was this supposed to make him feel? What was any of this supposed to do? He watched as his grandfather raised his hands to his face and let out a loud, muffled scream against his palms.

The fire alarm went off.

Neither of them reacted much as the water began spraying from the ceiling, covering everything below in a layer of damp, faintly musty smelling fluid. It didn’t even manage to put out the fire.

From off to the side, James heard footsteps. Someone running. He glanced across, just in time to see Tasha emerge from the hallway, her expression panicked. She looked to Hideyoshi, still caught in whatever battle was raging on inside himself, then looked to James, and saw his face.

“Ah,” she grunted, her face going from adrenaline to scowl in an instant. “So I’m guessing he’s your granddad, then.”

“Yeah,” he muttered back as she began picking her way over to him, utterly ignoring the water beginning to soak its way through her clothes. “He didn’t take it well.”

In the corner of his eye, James watched as something else exploded. Another couch? No. That one looked like a table.

After a moment or two, Tasha reached him, leaning down on her elbows beside him on the counter.

They watched together in silence for a minute as Hideyoshi raged. Then, the old man slumped himself down in the smoldering remains of a chair, and held his head in his hands.

James felt a hand settle gently on his back, and glanced across. Tasha was gazing at him, that scowl still fixed quite firmly to her face. She jerked her head silently to Hideyoshi.

He took a breath, pushed himself back up from his place against the kitchen counter, and nodded.

However out of it Hideyoshi was, it seemed there was still a place somewhere inside him that was annoyed by the blaring of the fire alarm. Around the time that James made it halfway to him, he jerked a wrist in the direction of the ceiling, and the noise went quiet with a crack of snapping plastic.

The couch was still on fire as James moved towards the spot beside his grandpa, but he threw an absent gust of wind, and the flames died away a tad. Hideyoshi saw the boy approach, and the fire died down a deal further.

It should have felt awkward, James thought as he wrapped his arms around the older man’s chest, pressing a cheek against his ribs. It wasn’t, though. His grandfather was very warm in the present damp. The man was still for a moment, then James felt a hand come to rest atop his head, the fingers tussling at his hair.

“I hoped you’d never see me like that,” Hideyoshi muttered, mournful.

“I never wanted you to see this thing, either,” he replied, raising a finger to give his mark a flick. “Didn’t want you looking at me different.”

“… Sorry.”

James shook his head.

“Don’t,” he muttered, pulling back for a moment, before bringing his head forwards against his grandfather’s ribs in a gentle headbutt. “What matters is we’re family, right? We love each other.”

“… You promise you won’t be scared of me?” The hand atop his head gave his hair another ruffle.

“Only if you promise not to feel sorry for me.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet chuckle.

“Guess we have a deal there.” He shot a glance around the room as the last of the water ran out, and laughed again. “Your grandma’s gonna be pissed. I kinda broke the living room.”

James smiled.

“Dibs not telling.”

“Little brat.” Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his seat, and let out a sigh. “Now then. Let’s have a talk about what to tell your Dad.”


“Are you sure this is okay?” James asked, climbing out of the car to rejoin his grandfather. “Like, one hundred percent?”

“Yes, James,” Hideyoshi sighed. “I’m sure. Peter’s already a high level mage, and your mother knows most of the important bits. As long as we keep the crime fighting to ourselves, there shouldn’t be a problem. Now come on. Let’s get it done.” The older man jerked a thumb behind his back towards James’ house across the street, and began to walk, fiddling momentarily with the electric lock on his car key as he went. James, after a moment’s hesitation, followed along in his wake. They passed the gate, and Hideyoshi tapped firmly on the door with his knuckles.

It took a few moments for anyone to answer. James shuffled his feet; his grandfather put his hands in his pockets. Then, with a series of small clicks, the door opened.

“Hi, Dad,” Peter murmured as his eyes fell on Hideyoshi. Then he saw his son. “James? I thought you went to the movies?”

“Yeah,” Hideyoshi nodded. “We met up. Some things happened. I found the flying kid you were looking for.”

Peter shot his son a glance at that, before giving Hideyoshi a glare.

“Flying kid?” he asked. “Not sure what you m-”

“Dad,” James muttered, his cheeks growing rather warm. “It’s me. I’m the flying kid.”

“… You’re what?”

At that, Hideyoshi chuckled.

“Just show him, James. It’s easier to explain it that way.”

James hesitated a moment, glancing around the empty street to make sure no one was watching, before lifting himself an inch or two above the ground. He stayed like that, hovering awkwardly above the porch, for a few seconds, before once more lowering himself to the ground.

“… I heard someone caught my picture when that lightning guy attacked?”

For a moment. Peter only stared, gazing down at his son, his expression utterly blank.

“… What.”


A few hours later, James lay on Casper’s bed, listening to the sounds emanating from the other boy’s game.

It hadn’t taken the older Toranagas long to banish James from the conversation, retiring to Peter’s study to hash out some kind of schedule, and leaving him once more to his own devices. Lacking anything else to do, he’d gravitated to Casper’s room, hearing the muted sound of his television through the crack beneath the door.

It was fun, at first, if a little quiet. Neither boy was much in the mood for talking.

“How’d the thing with Doctor Sharpe go?” James asked, staring absently at the ceiling above the bedspread. “She help you think about some stuff?”

“Kinda,” Casper agreed, his eyes on the television screen as he piloted his character across a field. James quietly regretted that they only had the one controller. “It was weird. Think it helped me sort some things, though. Like how weird it is when you all go Japanese on me.”

James chuckled.

“Hey. If you wanted me to teach you, I wouldn’t say no.”

“Not the point,” Casper murmured, rolling his eyes. They were silent for a time after that, before the older boy spoke again. “… Have you been avoiding me?”

“Just a little,” James replied, after only a moment’s hesitation. “You said you wanted some time so you could deal with stuff.”

The other boy didn’t reply to that at first. James glanced sideways at him, and saw his eyes still focused on the screen. Boss fight. James looked away again. A moment or two later, there was a sound of swiping metal, and the familiar trill of the game over music. Casper sighed.

“Is that why you didn’t tell me you keep sneaking out at night?” he asked, leaning back on his hands as he turned his gaze to James. “I have a radar brain, James. I notice sometimes when you start climbing out your window.”

James frowned at that. Not annoyed, really. He wasn’t entirely sure what this feeling was. The window exits had happened a few times early on; Caleb calling him out at night time, before they started organizing better excuses.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It’s why I didn’t tell you. I had Tasha backing me up, and I was giving you a break.”

“… So you gonna tell me now?” Casper asked, his voice just a fraction too casual as he started back up his game.

James frowned a little harder at that. Why did it feel like he was being made a bad guy, here? It wasn’t like Casper hadn’t been acting funny too, the last few weeks.

“Depends,” he muttered. “You gonna tell me what happened after you ran away?” In the corner of his eye, Casper gave the tiniest of flinches. He hesitated for half a second, before adding: “You gonna tell me where you got that second phone?”

“… You mean the one your parents got me?” Casper asked, his tone wavering almost unnoticeably.

“No,” he murmured back. “The other one.”

He’d noticed it first about a week ago, how one or two times out of three, Casper’s phone would buzz instead of chime when he got a text, or how it would switch pockets when he wasn’t looking. At first, he’d just dismissed it. A mild inconsistency; not even enough to stick in the mind.

But then something obvious had happened.

They’d been making castles in the hall with Bex, when Casper’s phone had chimed; a message from James’ mom about what snacks he liked in his lunchbox. That hadn’t been the unusual part. That had come when James went upstairs to use the bathroom, only to hear a buzzing as he passed by Casper’s room. When he’d peeked in through the slightly open door, there’d been another phone charging on Casper’s bedside, identical to the first. When he’d gone to look, there’d been a single message on the screen:

‘Have a good day at school?’ from a sender by the name of ‘F’.

James waited a while for Casper to answer, and when no reply was forthcoming, he tried again.

“… You gonna tell me who F is?”

What followed felt like the longest silence of James’ life, before Casper simply sighed.

“No,” he muttered. “I guess I’m not.” He lowered the controller down between his knees, and once more turned his gaze to James. “Guess we’re keeping secrets now, huh?”

James returned his friend’s gaze and gave him a smile, a little sad.

“Yeah. I guess we are.” He pushed himself upright. “… Promise you’ll tell me if it gets you into trouble?”

Casper nodded.

“Only if you promise that, too.” He returned James that same saddened smile, but it had a crack in it. “We’re still friends, right?”

“… Yeah. We’re still friends.” James climbed to his feet and made his way towards the door, then stopped. “I told my dad about my magic,” he said quietly. “He’s cool with it. Just thought I should let you know.”

“… Thanks.”

With that, James exited the room, and closed the door behind him.

If he wanted time to breathe. He didn’t get it. Only a minute after he’d made it to his room, sitting himself down pensively on his bed, there was a creak from the door as his father edged his way inside. The silence this time was just awkward as the two of them gazed across at one another. Then, finally, Peter spoke.

“So I guess you’re a mage now, huh?”

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