Dissonance: 4.8

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AN: I know this one’s a little late, but it’s also significantly longer than normal, so, you know. That.

Tasha:

Tasha felt a note of surprise as Caleb’s palm slammed into her jaw, the force of it sending a nasty crack echoing through her skull. He’d sidestepped her opening lunge far faster than she’d expected him to, lining up his counter before her fist had even finished its arc. It sent her stumbling.

His follow up came in the form of a kick to the stomach. Somehow, the guy managed to kick her hard enough to launch her whole body into the air. Tasha felt something inside her stomach churn painfully at the blow. Before she had time to come to terms with that, however, her body fell back once more to the ground, and she was distracted by the feeling of her back slamming against the surface of a factory workstation, before her momentum carried her off of it in a roll and she hit the floor, something jagged digging into her shoulder.

Okay. This hurts.

She shook herself. What the fuck was that? Three seconds in and she already was on her ass? No. This wasn’t happeni-

Before she could finish the thought, she heard the thump as Caleb landed lightly on his feet alongside her.

“Now, are you done calling me a cree-”

Caleb didn’t quite manage to finish the sentence before Tasha kicked at him, bringing her leg forwards as hard as she could towards his shins. The blow didn’t even come close.

Her enemy was in the air before her leg made it halfway to him, hopping over the attack as casually as if it were a skipping rope. She growled, then shoved herself up off the floor with her hands, before another blow caught her about the cheek like a sack of bricks. It hurt. But she was less surprised by it now. She didn’t flinch. Her opponent launched another, this time right for her face. She didn’t bother trying to dodge it. Instead, she crunched her stomach and slammed her head against his fist. She felt it as the impact sent ripples of pain echoing through her skull. She grit her teeth. Then, she heard something crack, and Caleb swore.

She watched, her vision a little blurred, as the boy backed off, his fist cradled in his other hand. He was glaring at her.

She grinned, trying to ignore the taste of blood on her tongue.

In the back of her mind, she was aware that James was shouting something. For the life of her, though, she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Across from her, the enemy was tending to his finger, his face scrunching up in pain as he shoved the dislocated digit back into its socket. Then he muttered something under his breath, and Tasha watched as an all too familiar light began to flicker momentarily over his skin. She swore.

So the fucker knows how to make force fields, huh?

Caleb took a breath, then stepped forward, more cautious now.

Tasha backed off a ways, and forced herself to think, trying to ignore the harsh pounding still echoing inside her head. This guy was too quick and too strong even before the shield. But if she couldn’t land a hit with her fists, then she’d need to use something better.

She glanced around, and after a moment, her eyes landed on the abandoned workstation against which she’d fallen. It was a sturdy thing, about six feet long by two wide; made from some kind of polished metal. She reached out to grab one corner of it, and tugged. It didn’t move. Looking down, she realized it was affixed to a base plate on the floor with a set of thick, rust covered bolts. She rolled her neck around on her shoulders. Time to put those new muscles to work.

Caleb realized what Tasha was planning just a second too late to stop her. He charged, only for her to give a single massive heave against the metal surface. There was a snap as the metal holding the thing to the floor broke away. Then, she planted her feet against the base plate of the thing, and swung the countertop around like an oversized baseball bat.

The countertop caught her foe mid-lunge with the most satisfying smack Tasha had ever heard. Caleb was sent arcing across the factory floor, his shield crackling frantically around him as it adjusted to the shock, before his body struck the far wall, and he fell to the floor with a thud.

“Batter up!” she yelled, feeling more energy coursing through her than she had in her entire life. “PLAY BALL!”

For the first few seconds, Caleb didn’t move, simply laying there on the ground, his face pressed against the floor. Then, just as she was beginning to wonder if she’d taken it too far, he began to rise.

Tasha noted with some satisfaction that her enemy wasn’t looking very good. His hair was matted to hell and back, and a fresh trail of blood flowed gently down from his nose. Neither of those compared to the look he was giving her, though. This wasn’t his previous scowl any more. This look was sullen; angry. She laughed.

Caleb gave no spoken response. Instead, the shield around him simply ceased its flickering, the last of its energy dying away as a glove of emerald fire blossomed into existence around his uninjured hand.

Tasha stopped laughing at that. Instead, she pulled her makeshift weapon back for another swing and waited as her adversary charged.

He made it five steps before whatever it was stopped him, some unseen force that seemed to strike everywhere at once, scattering loose detritus everywhere and knocking her foe off his feet. He landed awkwardly on his hands, the flame glove dissipating around his arm as fast as it had come, and looked around, angry.

“James,” he growled. “No interfe-”

He let out a little yelp as that same force scooped him up off the floor, and left him dangling by an ankle in the air.

Tasha almost laughed, before she felt something wrench the table from her hands, something dense and powerful pressing against her midsection as the metal was pulled free of her grip, before being launched across the room and striking the railing of the stairwell hard enough to bend it out of shape.

She glanced around, eyes wide. Was this James? No. Since when was he this powerful? Her eyes fell on the space where James had stood at the beginning of the fight, and saw that it was empty. She had time to be perplexed by the small pile of clothing that sat a few feet away from the spot, before she felt the force wrap itself around her middle, and she was hoisted into the air.

“The fuck!?” she shouted. “Who are you? What’s g-”

“JUST SHUSH!” James’ voice screeched, sounding for all the world like it was coming from the entire room at once. “What the heck was that!? Are you guys crazy?” Whatever force it was that held Tasha up gave her a shake, rocking her wildly from side to side.

“W-wha-?” she began, only to be cut off as the omnipresent voice continued its ranting.

“You hit my friend with a table,” James shouted. “A TABLE, Tasha! What the heck!? You could have killed him!”

Tasha opened her mouth to make some bewildered sort of defense, but again, James wasn’t done. The voice turned its attention to Caleb, still dangling helplessly by his foot.

“And don’t even get me started on YOU!” the voice growled. “You were gonna use fire on her? Really? That’s not cool!” The invisible pressure gave Caleb’s foot a shake, his whole body swinging limply from side to side as he hung there. In another circumstance, Tasha might have found it funny. “Fire burns people, Caleb!” Caleb didn’t bother to reply. He was too busy staring at something off to Tasha’s side, his jaw slack.

Confused, Tasha followed the boy’s gaze.

It took a moment or two for Tasha to catch sight of what had caught her former adversary’s gaze; a few more for her to figure out quite what it was she was seeing.

It was hovering, perhaps two or three feet above one of the factory work stations, its glow dim enough to allow the eye to easily wander past it. It looked like… some kind of blob. A collection of small, glowing blue spheres in a veil of shimmering mist. As James’ voice paused for breath, the shimmer seemed to grow brighter for a moment.

“… James?” Tasha asked, one eyebrow raised. “That you?”

The voice seemed to hesitate for a moment, the ranting coming to a halt as the blob shifted down, the topmost sphere lowering itself towards the rest.

“Uhh… kinda,” James’ voice replied, a touch quieter now. “Remember how I said I turned into a wind amoeba for a while? Well, uhh. It was this thing. I think my body kinda goes away if I push my powers far enough?”

“… Weird.”

“… Yeah.”

“So,” she asked, “Can you uhh, put me down?” As she spoke, she reached down by her sides with her hands, trying to pinpoint the spot where she was being held and pry herself away. Nothing. The air just felt heavier there.

“… You promise to stop beating each other up?”

Tasha hesitated, then glanced at Caleb, and frowned.

“Only if he promises to tell us who the fuck he is.”

Caleb, for his part, was still staring, even as James lowered the pair of them to the ground, depositing Caleb on a table, and dropping Tasha on her butt with a thump. Upon touching the table top, he pulled himself slowly up into a sitting position.

“… And you’ve been this strong the whole time?” he asked, voice oddly hurt. “Why? Why didn’t you use this thing to beat me if you were able to? Why did you lie?”

“I wasn’t lying!” James protested, the faint shape of his form flaring brightly for a moment, before once more going dim. “It’s just-” he hesitated a second or two, before finishing with a sigh, his tone defensive. “It… It makes my clothes fall off, okay?”

For the first time in her life, Tasha had to actively resist the urge to grin.

“…Huh.”

“Shut up,” the blob muttered. “I didn’t ask you here to make fun of me… I didn’t ask you here to beat each other up for me, either.”

Tasha thought about that for a second, then shrugged.

“I do whatever I think’s right, dude,” she murmured. “Your friend’s a creep. I’m not sorry.”

The air around her made a ‘humph’ sound at that. Tasha got the sense that James was scowling.

“I’m not a creep,” Caleb grumbled, his tone bitter as he pulled a sleeve up to wipe the blood from his nose. “Look, you want the truth? Fine. If you’ve been this strong all along, then I might as well.” He let out a long sigh, then turned his gaze to the floor. “I’m a monster hunter, okay?”

“… Really?” Tasha asked, one eyebrow raised. “That’s the lie you’re going with?”

“Would you shut up?” Caleb asked, raising his hands to his face in frustration. “You asked for the truth, and I’m telling you. Can you stop being such a bitch about it?”

“You looking to get punched again?” she replied, one hand balling into a fist.

Caleb began to make a retort, but stopped short when another gust of wind hit him in the face, buffeting him a ways to the side. Tasha grinned, before one struck her as well.

“No fighting,” James repeated. “Monster hunter?”

Caleb glared at him for a moment, then let out a huff.

“Yeah. I move around a lot. Learned about my powers when I was a kid, started travelling, picked up a spell or two from some mages I met along the way.”

“What’s your power?” Tasha asked, a note of curiosity undercutting her annoyance. “You’re stronger than a normal kid should be. Faster, too. What gives?”

“Bit of everything,” Caleb grunted. “Little bit of super strength, little bit of speed, boosted reflexes, better senses. Nothing I’m really bad at, but I can’t rip steel tables off the floor.” He shot her a look, before returning his gaze to his hands. “Anyway. I moved around a bit. Got a gig helping an older guy track down a Hidebehind in Tennessee and figured I could do it as a job. It’s not like I had anything else going on. Turns out there’s some people around the place who’ll pay you to help them deal with whatever stuff they’re hunting. Like an apprentice for hire, I guess.”

As Caleb spoke, Tasha watched the little blob of James’ form begin to move, shifting away from atop its table and down into the cover of the stairwell. She watched, intrigued, as the glow surrounding him grew brighter, building from almost invisible, to about as intense as a lightbulb, before suddenly dying away. She caught a glimpse of scruffy black hair over a set of narrow shoulders, before the boy ducked a little further below the lip of the stairway. Without a word, she crossed to the pile of clothes on the floor, bundled them up, and tossed them in his direction. She allowed herself a chuckle when he peeked up, and the pants hit him in the face.

They were all silent for a minute or so as James got dressed. As the boy made his way back up the stairs, Caleb resumed.

“So I kinda caught you flying home one night and figured I’d say hi,” he murmured, gazing across at the boy as he crested the top of the stairwell. “Flight’s a pretty high level power, and I figured I-” he stopped mid word, his sentence catching oddly in his throat as he caught sight of James’ face. Following his gaze, Tasha could see why. She winced.

Whatever coverings James had been using to hide his purity marks, they must have fallen away when the boy transformed, because there they sat, plain as day on his cheek, right below the marks of pain across his eye. It surprised her just how angry seeing them on him made her. What must it be like, to have ‘rape victim’ written on his face like that? She pushed the thought aside.

For his part, James didn’t seem to have noticed a thing. He raised an eyebrow at Caleb.

“You okay, man? Kinda stopped at the good bit there.”

To his credit, Caleb rallied fast.

“Right,” he replied quickly. “Sorry. Just a weird thought. So, yeah. Flight’s a pretty high level power, and I thought I might as well come and introduce myself. Figured if I trained you a bit, you might be able to help me if you wanted. Be nice to have some company, you know?” He shot a glance at Tasha, his expression troubled. She felt her aggravation towards the guy lessen a fraction at that.

“Still doesn’t explain why you didn’t just tell him this up front,” she pointed out.

At that, Caleb only sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “Would you believe I was just trying to look cool? You know, come off as this mysterious wizard guy who’s just really good in fights?” He looked away, presumably in an effort to hide the red now dusting his cheeks.

There was silence for a few moments at that, before James chuckled.

“Well, you sure screwed that one up.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“… Can we get onto why I actually asked Tasha here, now?”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that.

“Sparring, right?” she murmured. “Kinda hard if we can’t go all out, you know.”

“No,” James replied, shaking his head. “I uhh. I really just wanted to ask you guys something.”

“Ask what?” said Caleb, leaning back a little on his hands; far more relaxed now that the focus was off of him.

“Advice,” James shrugged. “I was uh… Kinda thinking of… I want to tell my parents about my powers.”

Huh, Tasha thought. Interesting. She opened her mouth to speak, but Caleb beat her to it.

“Don’t,” he said flatly. “Bad idea. Trust me.”

Tasha snickered.

“You’re on some pretty thin ice with the whole ‘trust’ thing, Caleb.”

Caleb ignored her.

“Seriously,” he continued. “Don’t do it. Nothing good will come of it. You’ll just get hurt.”

James frowned at that.

“Really?” he asked. “I mean, I get that they might freak out and stuff, but it’s not like they won’t get over it. They’re my parents. They love me.”

“Love’s delicate,” Caleb replied, a note of bitterness edging into his voice. “It goes away if you push it too hard. They’ll think you’re a freak.”

James didn’t answer that. He seemed stung.

For her part, Tasha grunted.

“Some parents, sure,” she agreed. “But I’ve heard some stuff about James’ folks. They sound pretty cool.”

“‘Pretty cool’ doesn’t cut it,” Caleb shot back. “Sure. There’s a chance he could tell em, and it’ll all be fine because they just love him that much. But there’s a way bigger chance that they’ll either kick him out, or call the guys from the government with the padded vans.”

Tasha snorted at that, and glanced at James. Now the kid just looked scared.

“Dude,” she replied. “That’s not how that works. The government doesn’t even get involved unless you’re dangerous.”

“He is dangerous!” Caleb shouted back. “He’s a fucking wind mage!”

At that, Tasha only growled, her frustration pushing back once more against her limited self-control.

“And that’s not big enough to get you taken in!” she retorted. “Trust me! I live with a dude who does this shit! The worst that happens is you get your name put on a list, and they pay someone to help you deal with your powers!”

“And how do we know that guy’s not a liar, huh?” he spat. “Some huge hypocrite who puts kids away in cells!”

“And how do I know you’re not just full of shit?” she shot back.

“Because I’m-”

“Quiet!” James shouted, cutting the pair of them off. He was seated now, his arms wrapped around his knees. “Please. Quiet.”

“… Sorry.” Tasha muttered. Caleb said nothing.

“… I know it’s risky,” James mumbled. “A-and I know things could go wrong; but I hate lying to them, and now that things have calmed down, I’m kinda running out of reasons why I should.” He sniffed. “I came to you for advice, so would you please stop fighting?”

Tasha hesitated at that, then glanced at Caleb. He was still scowling down at the floor. She forced herself to take a breath.

“Why didn’t you go to Casper with this?”

“He doesn’t wanna talk about it,” James muttered. “I tried talking to him a few weeks back, about all the stuff that happened after he ran away. He just asked me to wait. Said he needed time. I tried again last week, but he just shut me down again. I think he kinda wants to forget about it all.”

Tasha chuckled humorlessly at that.

“Makes sense. Magic’s BS, anyways.”

“”Well I say don’t do it,” said Caleb quietly. “You don’t wanna see that look when your family stops loving you.”

James shifted his eyes to the ground, seeming almost ashamed.

Tasha considered her answer for a long few minutes. Family. What was family like, again? It was getting harder to remember every year. She groaned. It was hard enough to judge things when she had experience to go on. It was harder, giving advice in the dark like this. Then a thought occurred.

“… Fuck it.” Both James and Caleb glanced over at her as she pushed herself upright and trudged over to her bag.

“… What are you doing?” James asked, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Getting advice from someone way better at this shit than me,” she replied as she pulled out her phone. Neither of the others spoke as she pulled up the contact and brought the phone to her ear; James simply gazing at her as Caleb continued to glower. Neither tried to stop her, though.

The phone rang into the quiet for a second or two, before the old man finally picked up on the other end of the line.

“Tasha,” he murmured. “Something wrong?”

“Hey,” she replied. “Nah. Nothing bad. I’ve got a friend here who kinda needs advice. I thought I’d hook him up with you since I kinda owe him a favor.”

On his end of the line, Hideyoshi grunted.

“Huh. How big of a favor, and what kind of advice?”

“He’s the kid who saved my ass with the Family before,” Tasha shrugged. “Wants some help on whether telling his folks about his powers will work out okay or not.”

“The kid who saved you, huh?” Hideyoshi murmured. “Interesting. How old and what kind of powers?”

Tasha glanced at James, still staring at her, and gave another shrug.

“Twelve, I think. Maybe eleven? He’s kinda small.” James scowled at her. She stuck out her tongue. “As for powers. You got flight, some wind magic, and some kinda third bullshit I can’t really describe. He’s pretty strong.”

For a few seconds, Hideyoshi didn’t answer. Tasha checked to make sure the call was still connected, before he finally responded.

“… Flight. Was this kid near Central Park around the time you fought the elf?”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, surprised.

“Uh, yeah,” she muttered. “Only reason I was fighting the dude was cuz he kept trying to shoot him out of the sky. How’d you know about that?”

James cocked his head to the side at that, his expression turning nervous.

“Oh, just a minor assignment that slipped my way. Supposed to track down a flying kid and tell him to keep his head down. Got himself noticed with all that lightning about.”

“Ah.” Tasha winced.

“Yeah. It’s nothing big. Can you hand me over to him? It sounds like we need a word.”

“Yeah. Sure.”


James:

James watched, confused, as Tasha let the phone drop from her ear and stepped towards him.

“Well,” she grinned. “Good news is, I got you some advice. Bad news, you might wanna stop flying in public.” She finished making her way across to him, and held out the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”

James hesitated at that, uncertain. This felt dangerous, somehow, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why. He trusted Tasha, didn’t he? He shook himself, then, tremulously, he took the phone.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice small, even a touch squeaky.

“Ah,” replied a male voice on the other end of the line. “There you are. Right. Young man, my name is Hideyoshi Toranaga. I’m a contractor currently working with the Department of Metaphysical Affairs. I heard you wanted some help dealing with your family?”

For the longest time. James didn’t move. His thoughts, previously caught in a swirling mess inside his head, had suddenly been jammed.

… What?

“… Hello?” His grandfather spoke again, a note of irritation playing in his tone. “Kid, you still there? I’m waiting.”

Without really thinking, James hung up the phone, before letting it fall to his lap, and staring at the screen.

“… Ojiisan?”

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Dissonance: 4.7

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Tasha:

Tasha stepped out of the shower with a groan, stretched her stiff arms behind her head for a moment, then trudged towards the sink to brush her teeth. The last two weeks had been weird. Deeply satisfying on some level, sure, but weird. Hideyoshi was a harsh trainer, and apparently, the dude knew a thing or two about super strength.

Her muscles ached. She hadn’t expected that, really. Ever since whatever low level regeneration her power allowed her had finally done away with the damage her body had suffered, she’d expected to feel fine. But no. The moment the bullet wound in her leg was gone, Hideyoshi had set her to running, strapping her body with weights, before sending her on laps of Central Park. When her knuckles had repaired themselves, he’d started teaching her how to punch, and when the last of the damage had finally faded away, he’d started teaching her how to wrestle… By controlling statues with his mind. Solid stone statues.

Tasha reached for the toothbrush, fumbled momentarily with the toothpaste, and lifted it to her mouth, trying to ignore the sight of her belly in the bathroom mirror. She began to brush, sparing an idle thought to maybe grabbing a late afternoon snack on her way out to meet with James. Then she froze.

Over the few years since becoming strong, Tasha had learned not to look at her belly too much; the sight tended to annoy her. The problem with super strength, as it turned out, was that it made the muscles all that much harder to strain, the heart included. She had done her best to ignore the ever-present teenage frog belly; those few inches of flab that had refused to shift, no matter how often she exercised. She had learned not to let it bother her too much. She was a superhero. She could take it.

Catching sight of it now, though, and finally seeing the changes her two weeks of hell had brought, was enough to make her double take. She stopped, the brush halting mid-stroke along her teeth, and slowly lowered her gaze to her belly. The flab was gone; some of it, at least; the faintest tracery of her musculature now visible beneath the skin. She lowered a finger to her belly, and poked it. It was firmer than she remembered. Experimentally, she tried flexing, then watched as her newfound six pack shifted shape in the mirror. She grinned.

“Fucken. Sweet.”


James:

“You invited someone to train with us?” Caleb asked, one eyebrow raised. “Who?”

“Friend of mine,” James replied. “About your age, I think. She’s pretty tough.”

“Heh,” Caleb chuckled. “Tough for you, maybe, kid. Some of us aren’t so squishy.” As he spoke, the older boy crouched down towards the small padlock that was the only security the old warehouse had to offer.

“Not a kid,” James grumbled back, standing guard while his not-quite friend did whatever it was he did to the lock. “I keep telling you that.”

“And I keep beating you,” Caleb replied, pausing for a moment as the lock clicked to flick it open. “I told you. You stop being ‘Kid’ when you can beat me in a fight.” With that, he took hold of the garage style door, and heaved it upwards. The rusted metal squeaked a few times as the disused frame was forced into motion, but it opened. James glanced inside. The place was just as grim-looking as last time.

Caleb had shown James the old factory on their second sparring session, sitting on a disused slab of land just a few blocks from his school. When asked how he’d found the place, the older boy had just shrugged, and told him that they needed somewhere big and empty to train in. James wasn’t sure he liked it. The floors here smelled of mold and rust. But it served well enough. He liked the way his power made the windows rattle.

“You remember what I told you last time?” Caleb asked, stepping inside and motioning the other boy to follow.

“Yeah,” James recited grudgingly, stepping in after him and drifting gently into the air. “Remember to keep myself moving and be aware of my surroundings. No more banging my head on the ceiling.” He frowned. That last part was easier said than done. Caleb was way too quick when he chased him.

“That’s it,” Caleb grinned, shrugging off his oversized jacket and shifting into a crouch. “Well, your friend’s not here yet. You wanna have a go while we wait?” He chuckled. “I’ll give you a five second start.”

James didn’t bother replying. He knew from experience at this point that Caleb was already counting those five seconds. Instead, he turned, glancing behind him at the stairway that lead from the low ceilinged storage room, to the spacious factory floor above. He shot towards it, pivoted as he came level with the steps, and ascended. The moment he was out of Caleb’s line of sight, he grabbed the waistline of his hoodie, tugging it up off of himself, as he drifted over the cluttered work stations of the factory floor, littered with the odd tool or machine that the owner of the place had either forgotten about, or simply never bothered to remove. Three seconds down. Two to go. He cast his eyes about, and found a spot, throwing his hoodie down over a toppled chair, partially hidden by a workstation. Then, he dove down behind a pillar on the opposite side of the room, just as the sounds of Caleb’s feet stamping on the steps reached his ears.

James ducked in behind his cover, not daring to look in case his pursuer should happen to glimpse him; he knew by experience now that Caleb had far better eyes than him. Instead, James extended his power out, reaching through the stale air of the factory floor towards the staircase, and tried to feel the other boy out. It took a moment, trying to find Caleb’s shape in amongst the barely moving eddies of the place, but eventually, he caught the trace; something in the rough shape of a person, the currents around its head shifting as it looked from side to side. James began building up the wind in the air above his foe, readying a blast.

After what couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, he felt Caleb’s shape dart forwards through the air, heading in what he was pretty sure was the direction of his hoodie. He grinned.

He waited less than half a second for the older boy to reach his diversion, before stepping out of his cover to line up his shot. He caught the briefest glimpse of Caleb as he ducked out; the older boy was already looking at him, an arm pulled back, ready to throw. He barely made it back into cover in time, releasing his stored up shot in a half aimed burst as he ducked away. He watched as the little rubber ball shot through the air in the space he had just vacated, before bouncing off of the nearby wall. That was way too close. Out in the main area, he heard something crunch as his blast connected… Then a laugh.

“Hah! You missed!”

“How’d you find me?” James whined as he pushed off from the floor of the warehouse and sent himself soaring up along the pillar’s length. “I was totally hidden!” Once more, he began building up another blast, keeping it high and open, ready to fire in any direction.

“You were,” Caleb’s voice agreed. “But you tried to fool me with a hoodie on a chair, and you chose the most obvious ambush point in the room to hit me from.” As the other boy spoke, a tiny orange blur zipped past the pillar to James’ left. Another bouncy ball. As he watched, the ball struck the wall, just as the previous one had, and bounced off, straight towards him. He threw himself to the side to dodge it, and realized belatedly that he was out in the open, his back to the room at large. He knew what would come next without even having to look. Caleb had probably already sent his follow up shot arcing through the air towards him.

Without sparing a moment’s thought, James fired off his blast, aiming this time for the air behind him, spending his one precious shot to knock the incoming projectile out of the sky. He turned, saw Caleb below him, and out of the corner of his eye, watched the rubber ball in question tumble to the ground below. Caleb didn’t waste a second, plucking yet another ball from the tub at his waist. James tried to be grateful for the balls. At least Caleb wasn’t throwing real weapons at him. Nevertheless, he was out in the open, and Caleb rarely missed when he had a clear shot.

He threw himself forwards through the air, dodging away from his cover; trying to throw off the other boy’s aim by going in a bad direction. It didn’t help. He felt the little ball ping off between his shoulder blades, and let out a frustrated groan.

“Nice try, little man,” Caleb laughed. “But you’re gonna have to be quicker next time, kay?”

James opened his mouth to retort, but never got the chance.

“Quicker, huh?” Asked a familiar female voice from the stairwell. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I try?”

Immediately, James felt his frustration lift a little.

“Hey, Tasha!” he called, giving the figure a wave as she climbed up to meet them, clad in an outfit that looked to James a lot like his father’s Jiu Jitsu gi. It had to be the cleanest set of clothes he’d ever seen her in. “How’s life?”

“Pretty good,” she grinned back. “Not gonna lie. It’s been nothing but steak dinners and training since the park. I feel friggin amazing!” As she spoke, the girl crested the stairs, a small backpack dangling from one hand, and cast her eyes around, catching sight of Caleb across the way.

“Yo,” she shot him a wave. “You the creeper who’s been teaching James stuff?”

“… Maybe,” Caleb replied, gazing back at her. “And you are?”

“I’m Tasha,” she answered, her tone dropping a note lower. “Heard there was training going on. Thought I’d come say hi.” James wasn’t sure how she managed to make those words sound threatening, but she did, her face shifting into a scowl.

“Uh,” James murmured, floating down slightly towards the girl. “Hey, Tasha? Is something wrong?”

“Wrong?” Tasha asked, shooting him a glace. “I dunno, James. Has this guy told you why he was at your house yet?”

James opened his mouth to reply, but Caleb got there first.

“No,” he murmured, frowning. “That’s something he earns when he beats me. You got a problem with that?”

James scowled. Tasha, for her part, dropped her bag lightly to the floor.

“Then yeah,” she said quietly. “I got a problem. See, to me, you’re just person number four in a line of random weirdos who started following my friends around. So, here’s what happens next. You tell us who you are, or I start punching. I’m good at punching.” She cracked her knuckles, and for the first time, James noticed that her hands were wrapped; bandaged up for a fight. Across from her, Caleb lowered himself a little, ready to move.

“Uh, guys?” James interjected nervously, drifting down between the pair. “Can you not? I didn’t want this to-”

“No,” Tasha cut him off. “Sorry, James, but you’re my friend, and I look out for my friends. This guy’s creepy.”

James opened his mouth to protest at that, then closed it again. She wasn’t wrong. He was pretty sure by now that Caleb didn’t mean him harm, but that didn’t change the fact that the older boy still hadn’t explained knowing where he lived.

After a few seconds spent failing to respond, James heard Caleb sigh behind him.

“So, I’m guessing you agree with her, then?” he asked. “Well, fine. Tell you what. Tasha gets the same challenge you did. She beats me, I spill the beans. Seems like the fair way to do this.”

“Sure,” Tasha murmured, rolling her neck. “I’m up for that.”

“… Can you at least promise not to hurt each other?” James asked, trying to quiet his concern.

“No,” the others replied in unison.

“Out of the way now, James,” said Tasha.

James hesitated, then, regretfully, he stepped aside. The moment he was clear, Tasha lunged.

Caleb was ready for her.

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Dissonance: 4.5

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Author’s Note: Hey guys! As promised, I am uploading the first two of the playlists of stuff that James and Tasha enjoy. They’ll probably grow over time as I find more music I think they’d rock out to. If you guys have any suggestions on hearing them, you can feel free to shoot me your ideas. Here they are: Tasha’s Beatz and James’ Tunez.

James:

The boy was odd. That was the first thing that came to James’ mind upon seeing him. It was hard to pin down; nothing about him was particularly eye-catching in and of itself. Just another teenager, his shaggy brown hair cut perhaps a bit too long, wearing a faded shirt, a leather jacket that looked at least a size too big for him, and a pair of jeans that either badly needed replacing, or had possessed those tears in the knees since their purchase. James probably wouldn’t have looked twice at him if they’d passed one another in the street, but the older boy was still staring at him, standing on the curb across the road, unmoving. The stranger raised his hand in a wave, and James copied it, confused.

“Oi, bud,” Tasha asked from the other end of the line. “You still there? You went quiet.”

“Oh, right,” he muttered. “Sorry. There’s a guy outside being weird.”

“How weird?”

The boy outside smiled, turning his raised hand mid-wave to beckon to him. James raised an eyebrow at that, then shook his head. The older boy scowled.

“Pretty weird. Mind if I call you back?”

“Sure. Lemme know if you need backup.” The line went dead.

The stranger was moving again, glancing from side to side around the deserted street, before looking back at James. Then, he raised his hands to chest height, holding them about a foot apart from one another. Then, for the briefest moment, something appeared between them, like the flickering of flames through water. It was there for just a moment, before it faded from between the other boy’s fingers. James stared.

This boy was magic? Why was he here? How had he found him? Again, the boy beckoned him to come outside. Once more, he shook his head.

This time, the boy outside didn’t scowl. Instead, he grinned, shifted his shoulders briefly in an exaggerated shrug, and began walking forwards, making his way across the street. James watched him, perplexed. Was this someone from the Family? Had someone seen him flying?

James watched as the boy reached the gate that separated his house from the rest of the street, placing a hand on the latch before vaulting it in a single neat jump. Then the boy approached the front door, and glanced back at his window, still grinning. Then, he held out a hand, conjuring more of that odd, slightly off-coloured flame above his palm, and raised his other hand to knock on the door.

James felt the dread sinking into his stomach in an instant. This boy was going to show his parents magic? Without thinking, he brought his hands up at shoulder height, fingers splayed out, and slowly shook his head.

The boy grinned a little wider at that, the flame flickering out in his palm, and once more gestured for James to follow him.

He hesitated for what felt like the longest few seconds of his life at that, before reluctantly pressing his fingers against the window, and sliding it open.

“Hey there,” the stranger murmured as James clambered awkwardly down out of his window, not wanting to show this newcomer his flight unless he had to. “Name’s Caleb. Sup?”

He didn’t answer right away, lowering himself down from the second storey window bracket by his fingers, before dropping lightly to the ground, using his power just a little to soften the fall. Then, he turned towards the other boy, and found that he was angry.

“I don’t care who you are,” he growled. “If you go near my family again, I’ll-”

“Whoa, now,” Caleb chuckled, splaying his hands out casually in front of him. “Easy, tiger. I just wanted to have a talk. No one’s doing anything to anyone’s family. C’mon. Let’s go somewhere a little less likely to get us noticed.” With that, he turned, walked back towards the gate, and once more vaulted easily out into the street, leaving an angrily sputtering James to follow in his wake.

The strange boy guided them in silence through the evening dimmed streets, either not listening to or just flat out ignoring the three or four questions James attempted before he finally gave up, lapsing into a stony quiet as he let the boy guide him.

After a few minutes, they reached a skatepark, only a block or two from James’ house, the last of its occupants just heading off as the two of them arrived. Without a word, Caleb strode up the side of the concrete pit, before stepping over the edge to slide neatly down the curved wall and into the basin below, balanced on the balls of his feet.

“There we go,” Caleb murmured, shooting James a grin. “Now we can have a little bit of privacy.”

“Good,” he muttered, still furious. “Now why were you near my family, what the heck do you want from me, and who sent you here?” He felt his hands balling into fists by his sides, and only half-heartedly tried to keep himself calm.

For his part, the other boy shrugged.

“Like I said,” he chuckled. “I just wanted to talk. As for who we are. I’ve already told you my name. It’s Caleb. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. How are you so powerful, kid? Special training? Some kind of rit-” James didn’t let him finish. He dug into his power, extending his senses into the hands beyond his hands, and used one of them to punch the other boy in the face. The gust of air struck Caleb hard enough to send him staggering, collecting in the back of his jacket and pulling him off his feet like some strange kind of kite. James struck him again, and he heard the sharp crack as the older boy’s head bounced off the curved wall of the pit.

“I don’t care about your questions,” he spat, glaring at the newcomer as hard as he could. “I want to know who sent you, and why you came to my house. Was it the lightning guy? The Family?” He wasn’t sure if it was a smart move to name the Family. He didn’t care. If it was them, he had to know. He’d need make a counter move; get his family somewhere safe. He wasn’t sure what he’d do, but it would be something.

The strange boy gazed up at him from his spot against the wall, and it was with some satisfaction that James noted that, for just a moment, he looked scared. It was only a moment, though. He raised a hand to the back of his head, checking the point where his skull had met the concrete, and let out a low, quiet chuckle when he saw that his hand now bore a trace of blood.

“So,” he murmured, pushing himself upright against the concrete. “That’s how it is, huh?” He let out another quiet snicker, then continued. “Fine. Well, if you’re gonna try and threaten me, I’m gonna make damn sure you’re strong enough to follow through. Tell you what. You beat me now, and I’ll tell you everything you wanna know; but if you can’t, then I’m gonna make you sorry.”

James felt his eyes narrow. This was a challenge. He nodded.

Caleb wasted no time in answering before he launched himself at James, kicking off of the wall for some extra speed. He was fast, very fast, making it nearly halfway towards him before the next wind blast caught him around the chest, catching once more in the back of his jacket as it pulled him back. To James’ surprise, the larger boy didn’t try to fight the attack, simply letting his arms go limp as the jacket pulled at him, shrugging it off and letting the wind throw it out of the skate park and into the street beyond. He paused, recovered his balance, then charged again. James met him with yet another blast, dancing backwards a few steps for distance. Caleb took the blast head on, bracing his arms in front of his face to shield his eyes from the gale. The sheer weight of it forced him backwards a few paces, his feet dragging on the floor.

James prepared another blast, gathering the wind in the fist beyond his fist, before bringing it forwards against the other boy with all the might he dared. This time, Caleb changed tack. The moment James let the strike loose, he threw himself to the side, not quite fast enough. James almost felt it as the outer edge of the thing caught the other boy, buffeting his body through the air. It wasn’t enough. Hit or not, the other boy had avoided the lion’s share of the blow.

Caleb landed on beveled wall of the skate rink, hands and feet splayed apart to catch himself against it. Then, before gravity had a chance to take a hold of him, he pressed off once more, shooting himself at James like a bullet. James flinched back, the other boy missing him by a hair, and turned to face him, another strike charging between his astral fingers.

Caleb landed on the ground some feet away, and pushed himself to his feet. He was grinning.

“Your body clenches up when you’re about to throw a shot,” he murmured amiably. For the first time, James noticed something weird about how he spoke. “It makes it easier to dodge.” What was that accent? English? Canadian?

James pushed the thought aside, and threw another blast, taking the opportunity to once more make some distance from his all too agile foe.

Again, Caleb was moving before the shot even hit him. This time, however, he dodged better. The blast barely even grazed him as he threw himself out of its path. He hit the ground on his feet, then made his way for James at a dead sprint.

James began to ready another strike, but he already knew it wouldn’t be done before the older boy had time to reach him. He tried to dodge, shifting to the right, towards the middle of the pit, but to no avail. Caleb swerved mid-lunge to match his new trajectory, and when he came within a few feet of him, pushed himself into the air in a little hop.

James briefly felt the weight of it as the older boy crashed against his chest, his knees raised as they collided to pin his arms to his sides. Caleb bore him down to the ground and sat atop him, hardly even panting.

“You see?” he asked, laughing in the lighthearted, easy kind of way that should have been reserved for poking fun at friends. “You made your attacks too obvious, kid. You need more than just big old strong attacks, cuz eventually, people are gonna start thinking their way around them.” As he spoke, James watched the boy wipe his arm across his nose. It came away bloody. Then, Caleb gazed down at him merrily, seemingly just waiting for him to respond.

“… Aren’t you gonna make me sorry?” He asked, caught between confusion and the feeling of his own heart thudding away in his chest. “You know, for threatening you?”

“What?” Caleb asked, momentarily surprised as he ran his fingers through his wind-swept hair. “Oh, that,” he laughed. “Eh, maybe later. Wanna take another shot at me first, though? Maybe try something that isn’t just standing there and shooting me?”

James felt his eyebrow begin to raise. What was with this boy? Why was he helping him? Eventually, he decided to push those questions aside. Caleb had said his body went tense when he fired off his shots. Maybe he could…

“Dude, don’t do it when I’m on top of you. I could crush your chest with my knees right now.”

“Oh, come on!” he protested, indignant. “How’d you know? I wasn’t even tensing that time!”

“Nah,” Caleb replied, climbing off of him. “But you went all limp like someone trying really hard not to tense. It’s kind of a dead giveaway, kid.”

“Would you stop calling me that?” James pushed himself to his feet with a scowl, ignoring the hand the other boy offered to help him up. “You’re like, what, four years older than me?”

“Hey, if you want to stop being kid, then maybe you should give me a name.” Caleb grinned, ambling back a ways and crouching into some kind of stance.

“… James.”

“It’s nice to meet you, James,” Caleb murmured. “Now this time, try to come at me like you’ve really got a brain, okay?”

James glowered at the older boy, and they began.

The second time went even worse than the first. This time, instead of heavy strikes, he had opted for something lighter, quicker to charge and aim, like the flicks he’d used in helping Tasha escape. No use. The larger boy had simply barreled through them, arms held up once more to shield his face as he charged at James in a tackle. Without thinking, he’d taken to the air. He’d made it barely a few feet before the hand had caught the back of his hoodie, and he’d felt an arm wrap firmly around his chest.

“Gotta make sure you’re hitting hard enough to stop me, don’t you think?” Caleb asked, the laughter in his voice loud enough to set James’ blood to boil.

The third time, he had cloaked himself in a hurricane, wrapping the wind around himself and urging it to spin faster and faster by the second. It had drawn a wild laugh from his lips as he watched the older boy attempt to strike him, only to be pushed to the side by the gale. It didn’t last. Caleb had cloaked himself in some kind of shimmering veil of blue, before simply striding through the gale towards him.

“Congrats,” he murmured a minute later, a hand resting companionably on James’ shoulder. “You made me use a single spell. And in exchange, all it cost you was any ability to move, dodge, or take offensive action. Real good trade.”

“Shut up,” James muttered, a hand at his chin as he thought. “I’m trying to think, okay?”

“About a way you might be able to beat me?”

“… Shut up.”

Caleb snorted.

“Right. Well, while you think about that, James, I’m gonna take off home. I’ve kinda got places to be this evening.”

“Wait, you’re leaving?” James asked, trying to push away the strange sense of upset that met him at the idea. “But I was just getting close!”

“Sure you were,” Caleb chuckled. “Fine. Tell you what. I’ll come back in a few days. Call it Wednesday. See if you can figure out a way to win by then.”

“… You still haven’t told me who sent you to my place.”

Again, Caleb only chuckled.

“Yeah, I know. And you still haven’t beaten me yet.” He shot James a wink as he stepped towards the wall. “I’ll tell you this for free, though. I’m not with the Family, and I wasn’t gonna do anything to your folks. I just wanted a way to see how tough you were.” With that, he turned, grasped the lip of the skatepark wall with his hands, and vaulted himself upward. “Later, kid. Try and make it harder for me next time, kay?”

“Not a kid!” James shouted after him. He didn’t get a response.

He gazed after the departed boy in silence for a long while. His heart was still hammering like a bass drum inside his chest. He could barely feel the scrapes and scratches where his arms had hit the ground. Why did he feel so much… better?

After a few moments, he shook himself, and hastily made his way back home.


Caleb:

Caleb tried to ignore the shakes that wracked themselves through his fingers as he went to retrieve his jacket. Walking through that wind-wall had been enough to drain him dry. That kid was way too powerful to be worth it. In any other hunt, he’d have called for twenty three, and told her he was out of his depth, but he couldn’t do that now.

It had been a Hail Mary shot, approaching the boy in his home. Too stupid and thoughtless to be worth a damn as a plan, but if the pretty boy’s threat before had shown him anything, it was that he didn’t have time to waste playing it safe. He’d been hoping for some information; had known that they’d likely just leave him bloody. Against all probability, however, it had worked. The kid had either been scared of him potentially attacking his parents, or he was afraid of them finding out he had powers. In the first case, it meant he was stupid. In the second, he’d be easier to isolate. Judging by how new the boy seemed when it came to fighting, and how he never seemed to shift to other spells when his tactics had been questioned, it was beginning to look like the latter.

James was powerful, he was untrained, and he was alone. Caleb tried to wipe away his smile. He’d forgotten what hope felt like.

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Dissonance: 4.4

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Author’s Note: Hey guys, sorry about the late update again. There are reasons. I promise. As an apology, I am currently putting together playlists of some of the music that our main characters tend to enjoy, which some of you might hopefully get a kick out of. I’ll try and post the first of them with the next chapter. Next item on the list. The short story anthology that I’ve been linking to is concluding this week, with a couple more guest stories by TeowiMike Spivak, and Revfitz, who is the awesome fellow who got us all together for it. There is also this page, where, until monday, people can vote for the story they enjoyed the most out of the bunch, including my own submission: Rainy Days. I had hoped to continue uploading a single link with each chapter, but I kinda ran out of time. 

Anyways. On with the story!

Caleb:

Caleb followed the figures through the mall at a distance, keeping his eyes locked on the two adults of the group. Why were they so powerful? When he’d caught their scent the previous night, he’d thought that the scraps of power floating past his new familiar’s senses must have come from some dangerous mercenary commune, or perhaps a government garrison house. But no. It was a normal family, as far as he could tell. He watched, perplexed, as the little girl tugged on her father’s sleeve for attention. Just what the hell were these people?

The bird’s sense was limited; annoyingly so. He kept wishing that they could split up a little to allow him to get a sense of them separately, and perhaps determine where exactly all that power lay. As it stood, the four of them were keeping far too close to one another to allow him to get a decent read, their scents mingling so as to disguise the source of it all. All he knew was that they had power. It grated at him. He needed to get a better read if he wanted to be able to use this. Maybe if he could risk getting closer?

He followed behind them as they made their way into a game store, sticking close to the entrance and pretending to flick through a bargain bin while his bird took another sniff. The levels shifted slightly as the boy stepped away from the rest of his family to examine a rack of console games, a sizeable chunk of the power breaking away with him. Caleb’s eyes went wide. The kid? Really? He’d assumed that a power this vast would be divided among the two adults in some fashion, with the children possessing perhaps some small, underdeveloped fraction of that same potential, but no. The boy was a mountain. His familiar took another sniff, and he flinched.

There was another power now, passing close beside him, barely more than a foot away; big enough to dwarf him. He turned his head just enough to see the two teens moving past him into the store. The older of the two was a pretty boy, perhaps a year or so older than him, with his hand on the shoulder of a younger, freckled boy who looked way too tired. The younger boy was staring at him. He pretended to look away, watching them still in the corner of his eye.

Where was all this power coming from?

Caleb watched, hardly daring to move, as the older of the two newcomers leaned in to whisper something into the younger one’s ear, before letting go of his shoulder and pushing him gently forwards. As the two of them broke apart, Caleb noted the change with his newfound sense. The freckled one was normal, in a nominal sense, at least, with a power level around equal to his own, without encumbrance. That news didn’t calm him, though. It meant the older boy was another freak. Humans weren’t meant to be this powerful. It was the one thing he and his masters could agree on.

He watched as the sandy haired boy made his way towards the family, his face breaking into a tired smile as the other kids noticed his presence and rushed to meet him, their parents lingering a short way behind. The little girl threw her arms around the blond boy’s waist as they reached one another, giggling as he tussled at her hair. Caleb wasn’t even surprised now as he caught the girl’s scent. She was as strong as her brother. Maybe even stronger. The older newcomer made no such contact, moving off to the side, unnoticed.

He closed his eyes to listen as the two younger boys began to speak, murmuring quietly so as to force him to rely on his own enhanced hearing to make it out.

“Hey, Cas. You okay?”

“Yeah. I think so. Just tired.”

“You wanna talk about it later?”

“Later? Yeah. Right now, though, I just want to sleep.”

He frowned. Curious words, but nothing useful. The family was grouping up around the boy now, the girl clambering uninvited up onto his shoulders as they moved towards the exit. Caleb checked his watch with a sigh. His time was nearly up. He needed to check in with Twenty Three soon. He’d have to return to this later.

He felt a hand on his shoulder as he turned to take his leave. He glanced around. It was the pretty boy, power still flowing off of him like smoke.

“I don’t know who you are,” the stranger murmured, eyes fixed on his. “But if you do something to hurt my Casper, I want you to know, you’ll pay for it.”


James:

James set his eyes on the freshly repaired basketball and frowned, once more willing the air trapped inside the thing upwards. After a few moments, the ball complied, rising into the air a mite less jerkily this time than in his previous attempts, the first of which had almost destroyed his lightbulb. He grinned, extending his hands to it, and tried to will it ever so slowly towards him.

The ball jumped forwards at the order, streaking its way across his room and passing perfectly between his outstretched hands, before striking off of his face with a resounding snap, bowling him back against the mattress. He lay there for a moment, dazed, as the ball bounced its way happily across his bedroom floor. He brought a hand up to rub at the fresh red patch blossoming across his forehead.

“Oww,” he muttered, glaring at the ball. “Freaking ow.”

Then, he went back to practicing.

He’d rather be talking to Casper right now, figuring out what had been going on in the last half week or so of movement, or even just chilling with the guy over another bad anime box set. But no. Casper didn’t want to talk. The moment they’d gotten home, he’d just fallen down on the nearest couch and started snoring. Even after the guy had woken up, he’d been quiet. In the first brief moment James had managed to snag alone with him, he’d just asked for him to drop it.

“Look,” he’d said. “Can we not, right now? I don’t know about you, but I kinda just wanna forget the weird stuff for a while. Can you just, I dunno, gimme a few days?”

James scowled at the memory. He’d agreed, reluctantly; unable to think of a way to push the issue without acting like a jerk.

“Stupid doof,” he muttered. “Not like I might have stuff to say. I only got hit by lightning yesterday. It’s no big deal.” He gave his power another flick towards the basketball a mite more forcefully than he’d intended and winced as the shot sent it slamming off of his TV stand hard enough to make the device wobble dangerously on its perch, before he once more used his power to catch it.

“Hey,” Peter called from downstairs. “Are you okay up there? Did you break something?”

“No,” he called back, giving his best effort to force the frustration out of his tone. “Just fixing my basketball!”

“James,” came the aggrieved sounding reply. “Don’t throw that thing around in the house! You’ll break our stuff!”

“Sorry,” he grumbled.

He had to admit. This was a bad way to train. It was just unfortunate that it was also the least bad way he’d been able to think of. If there was one thing that his adventures over the last few days had taught him, it was that he needed to get better with his powers. He didn’t want to get sidelined by them again like he had last night.

He gazed at the ball, once more sitting motionless on his bedroom floor, and stewed.

It was perhaps half an hour later when his phone rang. His anger had just begun to fizzle out into boredom, and he was distracting himself by sending the air to rustle around the sides of the ball, trying to spin it like a top when the device at his bedside began to trill.

He glanced sideways at the screen, uncaring, and didn’t recognize the number. He shrugged, then picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Tasha. You okay?”

“Oh!” James breathed, relief for yet another nugget of pent up stress flooding through him. “Hey, Tasha! I’m fine. Are you fine? Please be fine. That guy was throwing lightning bolts!”

“Dude,” Tasha chuckled. “Chill out. I’m cool. I just had to punch the guy till he stopped being bullshit. Easy problem. Saw you got hit. You doing okay?”

“I think so,” he muttered. “Kinda made some weird stuff happen. I’m pretty sure I turned into a wind amoeba for a while. Better now, though.”

“… You what?”

“It’s a long story. You sure you’re okay? You got that food and stuff I left you, right?”

“Oh, shit, that was you? I thought I just stole it from some random camper. Yeah. I got it. That salami was good stuff, man.”

James leaned back against his headboard and let his body relax as he listened to his friend talk, feeling the tightness in his chest finally release. Casper was okay. Tasha was okay. Everything was good. He glanced in his dresser mirror, and saw that he was grinning. Tasha was still talking, but he wasn’t entirely sure what about.

“Casper’s safe,” he interrupted absently. “My Mom talked him into staying at our place until we can fix things up with his stuff.”

“You serious?” Tasha asked. “Oh, crap, man, that’s awesome! Hey. Tell him thanks for looking after my dog!”

“He looked after your dog?”

“Well, either that or someone broke into my place, stole most of my cash and fed Maxie a bunch of old cereal packs, and Casper’s the only guy I gave a key to my place, so, you know.”

“You mean you went back to your place?” James asked, nervous. “But aren’t those guys still looking for you?”

“Eh, probably,” she replied. “But nah. I sent some random old dude to pick my stuff up for me. I’m staying at his place for a while.”

“… Okay,” James mumbled, picking himself up off of the bed and beginning to pace as his brain tried to sort through all the snippets of new information. “But, I mean, what if they track the dog, or, like, figure out where you went or-”

“Dude,” Tasha cut him off. “Trust me. It’s fine. The guys I’m staying with know their stuff. You can chill.”

“… You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“… Okay.” He forced himself to stop, balancing on the balls of his feet, and took a breath. “Yeah. Okay. I’m calm.”

“Cool,” she chuckled. “Oh! Yeah. Also, new information. Magic’s a thing.”

James raised an eyebrow at that, gazing momentarily at the phone.

“… And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’?” She asked, a touch annoyed. “I drop a bomb like magic and that’s all you give me?”

“Heh,” James chuckled. “Tasha, I’m a flying twelve year old who controls the wind, and yesterday, I got hit by lightning. Either magic’s real, or I’m supposed to unite all four elements and take on the Fire Lord.”

“… Man, now I just wish you were the Avatar.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, suddenly melancholy. “I know. I wanna be the Avatar.”

He moved across to the window, leaning on his elbows against the sill as he gazed out at the street below. In the early evening gloom, it took him a moment to notice the other boy gazing back at him.

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Interlude 3

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Author’s note: 

Hey guys. I know this one’s kinda late. My aplogies for that. I was planning out the next arc. But, that said. I intend to have the next chapter up by Tuesday, so, yay for that. Now, just like last time, and the time before, I’m putting a link in this chapter to the short story display that I, along with some other writers have contributed to. This one is called Cybercelestial, and it’s written by Shaeor.

Alrighty. Hope you all enjoy the chapter.

Tasha:

Tasha tugged at the binding around her knuckles with her free hand. It felt weird, having everything bound up so tightly, but at least the hand wasn’t throbbing with every shift of her weight anymore. She was glad of that. She had enough aches to deal with already, the bruises of the previous night still far from healed.

She turned her attention back to Hideyoshi a few dozen feet away, handing off their captive to the guards that now lined the edges of the park. Couldn’t he hurry up?

Her leg was sore, the spot where the bullet had struck bone ached like all hell. She grit her teeth and stomped over to a tree, looking to take some weight off of the damn thing. When she got close enough, she pivoted on her heel, throwing her shoulder against the trunk of it in an attempt to lean on it. The moment the freshly relocated joint hit the surface, she regretted it, lines of pain darting out into her torso. She swore, pushed herself away, and slumped down onto the ground on her backside, trying to ignore the myriad complaints in every bruised joint and tendon in her body.

She just wanted to be comfortable for five god damned seconds. She lay down on her back, hoping against hope that the soft grass would provide just a moment of relief. No luck. Now her back hurt. She shifted. Now it was her ribs. She took a deep breath, closed her good eye, and tried to wait it out. It didn’t help. She just became more aware of the itching, uncomfortable soreness under her other eyelid.

She only became aware of Hideyoshi’s return when she heard his voice above her.

“Ready to go?” He said, his tone businesslike.

“… Fuck off.” She muttered, shifting once more on the ground, and again, regretting it. “Just leave me alone and let me sleep.”

“You’re sleeping here?” He asked. “Isn’t that a little too uncomfortable?”

“No shit, asshat.” She replied, her tone bitter.

He chuckled at that. If she thought she could have hurt the man right then, she’d have punched him.

“Wouldn’t you rather use a bed for that?” He asked. “I’m sure you’d find it easier.”

That was a little too much to take. She opened her eyes, felt the scratching in the swollen one redouble, and glared at him.

“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” She shot at him. “Yeah, a bed would be better. Thanks for the tip, genius. I wish I had one, but since I don’t, then grass it is!”

To his credit, the old man’s smile dropped a fraction at that.

“… Homeless?”

“Fuck off.”

They stared at one another for a long few seconds, before the old man brought a tired hand to his face, rubbing momentarily at his eyes.

“Look,” he muttered. “It’s late. I’m tired. You’re beat to hell… You want some pie? I could use some pie right now.”

Tasha glared at him for another second in silence, before a quiet grumble from her stomach forced her hand.

“… Yeah. Pie’s good.”

Hideyoshi nodded, then extended a hand. For a moment, she thought he was offering to help her up, but then she felt herself begin to lift away from the ground beneath her, weightless. She opened her mouth to object, but the man preempted her, his tone gruff.

“I’ll put you down if you want, kid. But honestly, I can’t imagine walking’s very comfortable right now, seeing how stiffly you’ve been moving.”

“… I’ll walk.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, and she felt her weight return to her, dropping down onto her feet with a grunt. With that, the old man turned away and began to walk, Tasha grudgingly falling into step behind him. They were outside the bounds of the park before either of them spoke again.

“So,” Hideyoshi started, not looking back at her. “How’d you get hurt that badly anyway? Those bruises can’t all be from tonight. They’re too old.”

“Eh,” Tasha grunted. “I get into fights sometimes. That a problem?”

“No,” the older man allowed. “But you have super strength. I’m just trying to figure out who you could have been fighting to get hurt that badly. Can’t imagine a homeless girl having that many enem-”

“I’m not homeless,” she replied irritably. “Not anymore, anyways. I just… It’s not safe to go home right now.”

“Family trouble?” Hideyoshi asked.

Tasha let out a short laugh at that.

“No. I wish it was that. Then I could just beat them up and be done with it. I tried to save some kids from a prostitution thing… Kinda got myself tied to a chair. Think I broke a guy’s ribs when I escaped.”

The old man actually turned to look at her at that, an appraising look in his eye.

“These kids,” he asked. “I’m guessing disturbingly beautiful and far too happy about what’s happening to them?”

“… Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Because that’s the only child prostitution ring that currently operates in New York,” he shrugged. “They ran all the others out of town. Surprised you got away from them. They’re dangerous people.”

“I got lucky,” Tasha sighed. “God. It feels weird having a gun in your face, you know?”

“Yeah,” Hideyoshi chuckled. “I know the feeling. Nothing as small as a gun, but the same principle. Looking death in the face is an odd sensation.”

They stopped at a set of streetlights, the old man leaning against the metal post while they waited for the traffic to clear.

“So,” Tasha asked, doing her best to keep her tone free of judgement for now. “If you know about those assholes. I gotta ask, why are they still there? I don’t know what the hell you are, but you’re tough. Why haven’t you done anything?”

“Fair question,” he murmured. “To be honest, I’d like to. I have grandchildren in this city and that place disgusts me, but the honest fact is that fighting a group like the Family is complicated. My main reason, frankly, is that the man in charge of that place is one of maybe seven people on this earth that I doubt I’m powerful enough to kill.”

“Only seven?” Tasha asked drily. “Sorry, dude. I’m not buying that. You’re tough, sure, but I’m not buying you’re that tough.”

Hideyoshi shot her a grin.

“Choose to believe it or choose not to, your decision. Regardless, that’s my reason. They’re complicated, and you’re in over your head.”

Tasha grunted.

“Okay, fine. What about those government guys you were with, then? Why aren’t they doing something? Pretty sure what they’re doing is super illegal, so why is it still happening?”

“… Honest answer?” Hideyoshi sighed. “He’s too valuable.” He glanced sidelong at her, then gave his eyes another rub. “Alright, so, six years ago, a giant fucking space dragon tried to attack the planet. Don’t laugh. That’s what happened. It was very old, very dangerous, and we literally had to kill it with nuclear weapons and human sacrifices. That’s not the important part. The important part is that when it got close enough to Earth, other monsters started coming out of the woodwork. Monsters so big and violent that we had to raise full sized armies to take them down. My wife and I led the goblins against the Hydra, a friend of mine from Egypt trapped the Minotaur, the twins of Norway slew the Behemoth, and Father killed the Crow. You see? He’s too useful. He’s tough enough to kill demigods, and that earns him amnesty, no matter how many kids he fucks. I hate it, but it’s true. They won’t touch him.”

“… Well that’s bull,” Tasha grumbled eventually. “Bunch of cowards.”

“Well,” Hideyoshi chuckled. “I can’t disagree there. But I hope you at least catch my point. This is a task far too great in scope for you to take on. You’re not strong enough. You’d just wind up getting yourself killed.

“So I’m too weak.” Tasha didn’t put any emphasis on the words. She was too tired to really care. “Fine. So how do I get stronger, then?”

Hideyoshi snorted.

“Wow. And here I was thinking I’d need to convince you to let me train you. You want to get stronger? Easy enough. I can do that, if you like. We can start tomorrow, if you’re tough enough for it.”

Tasha gazed at the man for a few moments, then shrugged.

“Yeah, sure. Better than doing nothing and waiting all day. Pie first, though.”

With another tired chuckle, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Yeah. Pie first.”

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