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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Dissonance: 4.9

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James:

“Explain to me why I have to piggy-back you there, again?” Tasha grumbled, her tone more one of amusement than annoyance.

“That’s what you get for slapping that mud-pie in my face,” James replied, forcing himself to sound relaxed as he once more tried to scratch some of the pasted on grit off of his cheek. “That was just rude. I mean, where did you even find mud round here? It’s freaking Summer.”

“Used a water bottle to make some,” the older girl replied with a chuckle, swinging a left around a corner at a jog. “You needed to ease up, you know? Nothing beats some mud in the face for stopping people being dumb.”

James scowled at that.

“… Not dumb.”

Again, Tasha only chuckled.

“So, why’d you want to go see this guy, anyways? And why’d you hang up on him? He say something creepy?”

“No,” James muttered. “Nothing creepy. I…” He sighed. “I think I might know the guy.”

“Oh yeah?” Tasha asked, surprised. “Know him how? Some old school teacher or something?”

“… My grandad.”

“… Huh.”

“Something up?”

“Nah,” Tasha murmured, glancing from side to side, before making a dash across the street from the old industrial complex towards the city proper. “Just kinda makes sense, you know? He’s a powerful dude. You’re a powerful kid. Makes sense you’d have a badass in your family.”

“… Guess so,” James hunched a little lower over Tasha’s shoulders, thoughtful.

“Dude,” she grunted after a moment. “Lighten up. This is a good thing, right? You were worried about your family freaking out about magic, and now it looks like they already know. That’s good, isn’t it?”

James didn’t answer at that. His thoughts were still too muddled inside his head.

“… You think Caleb’s gonna stay angry at me?” he asked instead, his mind turning back to the older boy. Caleb hadn’t taken it well when James had asked Tasha to introduce him to her teacher. He’d stopped short of shouting, at least; instead resorting to a number of muffled curses and punching the table he was sitting on hard enough to dent the metal. In the end, he’d made James swear not to mention him to anyone besides Tasha, before storming off. Of all things, James could have sworn he sounded betrayed.

“He’s a dick if he does,” Tasha replied with a shrug, sending James an inch or two higher on her shoulders for a moment as she ran. “It’s your life. Just cuz you’ve got a better thing going on than him doesn’t mean he gets to be a bitch about it. We’ve all got our shit do deal with.”

“… Thanks.”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “Don’t take my word for it, though. I can be pretty dumb sometimes, you know?”

“Yeah.” He grinned. “But you’re wise.” He raised a hand from the older girl’s shoulder for a moment, and rapped his knuckles against her skull. “Stupid wise.”

Tasha snorted.

“You keep going like that and I’m gonna make you walk.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“I totally would.”

The remainder of the journey passed this way, the pair of them bickering lightly as Tasha jogged along the street, James perched comfortably atop her back. It was nice. Tasha was good at taking his mind off things.

When they reached the apartment block in question, though, James went quiet. Tasha guided him in through a foyer and into an elevator in silence, before pushing the button marked for the top floor.

“… You ready for this?” she asked, shooting him a glance over her shoulder. “You’ve been getting kinda tense back there.”

“Just nerves,” he muttered, not looking at her. “Either it’s him, or I’m just gonna get some advice from a guy, right?”

“Right,” she nodded. “… You sure you believe that?”

“I want to.”

At that, Tasha only laughed.

“Don’t worry about it, bud. If it helps, I can do the talking. Kay?”

The elevator chimed at that, and the doors slid open, revealing a single, dimly lit room roughly of a size with the inside of the elevator, at the end of which was another door, this one with a keyhole.

“… No,” he shook himself as his friend stepped towards the door, pulling a set of keys from her bag. “A-actually… Do you mind if I do this on my own? It… I kinda wanna talk to him alone.”

“Sure. I’ll be waiting here if you need me.” With that, Tasha unlocked the door with a click, and pulled it open, showing a blank, wood panelled wall beyond. “He, uh. He’s probably down the hall to the left.” She jerked a thumb out into the hallway. “Just follow the wall thataways, kay?”

“Right… thanks.”

James didn’t bother climbing down off the girl’s back. Instead, he let himself float upwards off of her, before drifting in through the door.

“Hey, Teach,” Tasha called from behind him, loud enough to make him jump. “I brought that kid who needed some advice. He said he kinda wanted to see you.”

Glancing around, James caught sight of the hall Tasha had pointed him to, down the end of which, a familiar voice let out a sigh.

“Fine, fine. Bring him in. It’s a little rude to hang up on people like that, you know.”

James followed the voice down to the end of the hallway, where it opened out into a room caught somewhere between a library and a dojo, all shelves and books and chairs, gathered in a circle around a broad tatami mat. On the far side of the mat, clear as day, sat James’ grandfather, a book balanced on his knee, not looking at him.

James stopped moving for a moment when he saw the man, simply hanging in the air, hardly daring to breathe.

Wow. Okay. This is real. It’s Jiji. Right. You can do this, James. You got this.

“U-um,” he tried, his voice barely audible through the nerves. “H-hi there, G-Gran-”

“There you are,” Hideyoshi cut him off, sparing him an irritable glance before returning his gaze to his book. “So you’re the flying kid, huh? Well, first thing’s first, you’re gonna get yourself in a boatload of trouble if you keep doing that all over the place.”

“Uh… Grandad? It’s me…” he tried again, his voice even smaller than before.

Again, Hideyoshi either ignored him, or simply didn’t hear, because his grandfather just kept on going.

“Second of all,” he grunted. “While I appreciate the things you did to help out my apprentice, I’m not a man who likes to be disrespected. You showed me disrespect when you hung up that phone and bullied your way into my house. If you want my help, you’re off to a rocky start.”

James stared at the older man, still just floating there at the edge of the hallway. Why was THIS the hard part?

Okay. He’s not listening. That’s okay. You just need to be louder. You can do that, right, James? What would Batman do?

“Hey, Grandad,” he tried again, forcing his voice out louder. “It’s me, Ja-”

“And furthermore,” Hideyoshi cut him off yet again, his voice growing louder now, his tone angry. “If you don’t stop interrupting me, kid, I will kick you out of this house, Tasha’s friend or not. Now. If you want my help. You’re going to apolo-” He stopped short as a gust of wind blasted the book from his hands, turning a furious gaze towards the boy, before his eyes went wide, and he stared.

“Jiisan!” James bellowed, this time in Japanese, more frustrated than he could remember being in his life. “It’s me! It’s James! I’ve had a hell of a day! I’ve had a hell of a MONTH! I got hit by LIGHTNING two weeks ago! I’ve been fighting child molesters, and evil wizards, and birds following me home from school, and if you don’t start listening to me, I WILL FLIP. MY. LID!”

James was shaking now, his hands balled into fists by his sides as he yelled. His lip was quivering. He could feel moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes. He wouldn’t cry. He promised himself that. He would not cry.

“James…” Hideyoshi breathed, still gazing across at him in shock. “Why are you flying?”

“I don’t know!” he shouted. “I don’t know a thing about any of this! One day I’m flying, the next I’m under attack! One day I’ve got wind powers, next I’m having to rescue Tasha from people with GUNS! I don’t know what’s going on!”

He was ranting. He knew he was ranting. He was spilling way too much; letting it out far too soon. He didn’t care anymore.

“I couldn’t tell Dad. I couldn’t tell Mom. I couldn’t tell you! I was scared, and alone, and now it turns out you knew all the time and you just didn’t tell me!”

He’d stopped looking at the older man at some point, and the feeling of his arms around him came as a surprise. It didn’t help. He was too angry, and too sad, and the last thing he wanted was that feeling of constriction. He was trapped. He couldn’t move. What happened next wasn’t a decision he could consciously remember making.

“Let. Me. GO!”


Hideyoshi:

He felt the boy’s form give way beneath his arms just half a second or so before the wind blast hit him. It was by pure instinct, and instinct alone, that he threw up a barrier in time to save himself.

When it struck, it was with the force of a storm, the brunt of it sweeping him bodily off his feet, before sending him hurtling back through the air. A normal man might have cried out, lifted a hand; at least given some autonomic response to the blow. Hideyoshi was too busy being shocked.

He saw the world crackle white around him as his body struck a wall, and instead of simply bouncing off towards the floor, was carried through it.

He landed in a heap in a bedroom. Tuva’s, he realized absently. The girl was going to be angry when she got back.

He didn’t move. The floor was as good a place as any for coping with surprise.

My grandson just punched me through a wall.

My Grandson. Just punched me. Through a WALL.

For a moment, he felt the strangest surge of pride.


James:

“… Jiji…” James asked tentatively. “… Are you okay? Please be okay. I didn’t mean t-”

“I’m fine, kiddo,” Hideyoshi’s voice grunted. “Where the hell’d you pull a blast like that from?”

Oh, thank heck. Okay. Time to be human again.

James glanced around, and through the eddies and waves in the air all around him, he caught sight of an open kitchen off near the the corner wall across from the corridor. He pulled his form back in around himself, then scooped up his clothes, and scooted in behind the counter in a dash, hoping beyond hope that his grandfather wouldn’t see.

“Sorry about your wall,” he called lamely as he began pulling on his pants.

“S’okay,” Hideyoshi called back amid the sounds of faintly cracking plaster. “I promise I’m not mad… Where’d you go?”

“Over here,” he replied, holding one arm over the top of the counter and waving it around as he tried to do his fly one handed. “Getting dressed!”

“… Why do you need to get dressed?”

“Using that much power kinda makes my body go weird.”

“Hah,” Hideyoshi chuckled, his voice closer now. “So your powers do that as well, huh? My fire does that, when I go all out.”

“… You have fire powers?”

“Yep.”

“… I have the coolest grandad.”

A chuckle.

“Little bit. Same goes for my grandson. Takes a lot to crack one of my shields. Way to go, slugger. So. When’d all of this come about?”

James tugged his shirt on over his head, and for a moment, wondered if he should bother dealing with his socks. He felt weirdly light. Almost giddy. This was good. He was moving. Finally. He was moving.

“I had a nightmare about a month ago,” he replied, quickly combing his hair back into place with his fingers, before standing up, turning to face his grandfather. “Kinda woke up floating above my bed.”

“Must have been a hell of a nightmare,” Hideyoshi murmured. “Most people need way worse than th-” The man caught sight of his grandson’s face and stopped, mid-sentence; his face going suddenly blank.

“… What?” James asked, an eyebrow raised. “There something on my face?” Then something cold dropped through his stomach with the weight of a bowling ball.

“… Jiji,” he said quietly, trying to force himself to stay calm. “T-that thing you think you’re seeing… Y-you’re not seeing it, okay?”

For a few moments, Hideyoshi didn’t move, besides the slow undulations of the muscles beneath his face, along with the clenching and unclenching of his fists. Then, he took a step forwards, reached over the kitchen counter-top, and brushed James’ bangs away from his eyes with a fingertip, leaving nothing at all to hide the marks on his grandson’s face from view.

James glared down at the floor as the older man took in the sight, then stepped back, folding his arms above his chest.

“… I said I had a nightmare,” he muttered. “Just… just leave it there, okay?”

Even if James had been willing to look his grandfather in the eye right then, it would have been next to impossible for him to track the emotions racing along across the older man’s face. For the longest time, both of them were quiet. Then, in a voice of calm so complete that James almost believed it was true, Hideyoshi spoke.

“James. I’d like you to tell me who did this to you, please.”

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