Charles Vance had spent a long few days unsure of what to think. Stuck alone in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and the passing attention of his wardens to distract him. Stress was too small a word for it.
He was angry, he was scared, he was tired, and his skin still itched beneath the bandages from where the base’s surgeons had laid their scalpels about his form, only barely possessing the decency to put him under first.
Most importantly of all, however, was this: for almost a week, Charles Vance had not known if his mother had survived the shot that brought her down. So when James Toranaga called to bring her in, it was almost enough to bring the boy to tears.
“Wait, wait,” he asked, his prior train of thought brought to a sudden halt. “My mom’s there? She’s okay? Tell me she’s okay!”
“What?” James asked, his voice sounding just as frazzled as Charlie felt. “O-oh. Yeah. She’s fine. She’s been freaking the heck out about finding you, but she’s fine. My grandma’s gonna go and-” There was a muffled pop on the other end of the line. “-Just went to go get her.”
There were other voices speaking on James’ side of the phone; low voices growling words that Charlie couldn’t make out; James himself snapping angrily in retort. Charlie wasn’t paying attention. The relief was too intense. He was shaking. His breaths becoming rather shallow. He lowered the phone from his ear, and brought his forearm up against his eyes.
He wasn’t getting rid of tears. Of course not. Just scratching an itch. Why would he be crying? Crying would be a dumb thing to do right now.
“Okay,” he muttered, refusing to allow himself a sniffle. “She’s okay. Mom’s okay. Good. That’s good.”
A second or two passed like that, the argument on the other end of the phone line quietly raging as he tried to pull himself together. Then Twenty Three flicked him in the temple.
He glanced at her, confused; his thoughts slowed.
“We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes darting towards the empty hallway as she spoke. “We’ve gotta get this done. You can cry about it later.”
It took the words half a second or so to sink in; longer still for Charlie to force the dazed fog from his mind. She was right. They didn’t have time for this. He shook himself.
“I wasn’t crying,” he muttered, returning the phone to his ear. “James. I need to speak to someone strong. We need help over here. We’re stuck, and we need someone tough to get us out. Is your dad around? Or your grandpa?”
The response wasn’t quite what Charlie had expected.
“Oh, not you too!” James snapped. “You don’t get to kick me out of this. I’m not handing off the phone, and I am not waiting in the hallway! I’m part of this!” Another muffled growl from the end of the line. James gave his best approximation of a swear. “Freaking fine! Look, I’m putting you on speakerphone. My grandad’s here. He’s super strong. Okay?”
There was a rustling noise, then the muffled voices on James’ side grew louder; each of them distinct.
One of them was speaking now; a male voice that Charlie vaguely recognized as James’ grandpa.
“I don’t care if you’re attracted to this boy, James. You’re not allowed to dictate who he talks to. That’s exactly the kind of rash decision making that proves you shouldn’t-”
“Jiji!” James snapped, his voice pitching rapidly towards a squeak. “He can hear you!”
Charlie had roughly half a second to process the knowledge that his best friend liked him before the older man continued.
“He can hear me? Good. Charlie. I need you to tell me everything you can. What’s your situation like. Can you see any landmarks. Are there any other captives with you?”
Charlie pushed the uncomfortable thought of James’ romantic inclinations away, and focused on the task at hand. A few months of burgeoning sexual awareness had taught Charlie that he was definitely into girls, but that was a conversation better saved for later.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “There’s a bunch of other prisoners in here too, but they’re all in their own cells. I haven’t got to talk to any of them yet. As for landmarks, there’s mountains outside the window, and it’s snowed most days since I got here-”
That was as far as he got before Twenty Three wrenched the phone from his hand and spoke into the mouthpiece, her tone curt:
“You’re trying to figure out where we are,” she said. “I’ll save you some time. We’re in Sweden. The facility is on the edge of a forest, about two miles east of Östra Kjolsjön’s southern tip. You can see Åreskutan through the window, so the cell block has to be on the south side of the complex.” With that, she pressed the phone back into Charlie’s hands. “First thing I did when I was planning this was track down a map.” She stepped towards the doorway. “Keep talking. I’m going to get a fresh disguise.”
Charlie returned the phone to his ear just in time to make out a question from a voice he didn’t recognize; male and faintly middle-eastern.
“Who was that?” the stranger asked. “Are there people with you? Can you trust them?”
“Yeah-” Charlie started, before cutting himself off. “I mean, I think so. I think she’s the one that Caleb guy was trying to save. She said she’d try and get me out.”
A distant grunt.
“Caleb will be thrilled,” Hideyoshi muttered. “And how’s the rescue progressing?”
“It’s, uh,” Charlie weighed up what he knew about the situation thus far in his head. “Not great.” He crossed the room to peak out through the doorway. He spotted Twenty Three almost immediately, an unconscious body he recognized as the guard who, ten minutes ago, had been patrolling the cell-block slung about her shoulder. “She’s taken out a bunch of guards, but they put a tracking chip inside me, so we can’t sneak away unless someone can punch a hole.”
There was a loud crunching noise from somewhere up above. Both Charlie and Twenty Three looked towards the ceiling.
“… And the roof just started glowing,” he added lamely. “No idea what that’s about.”
The sudden tide of questions that comment prompted was drowned out by Twenty Three’s response. Across the hallway, the young woman went from double speed to triple. She lugged the unconscious guard down the hall until she reached the first doorway with a simple handle instead of a secure lock, and quite simply kicked it open.
“Tell em I’m gonna get you out by car!” She shouted. “I need em to make some noise and make sure no one has a chance to follow us!”
Charlie nodded, returning his attention to the phone just in time for the flow of questions to suddenly come to a stop.
There was a quiet pop. Then silence.
“… Your mom’s here,” said James.
Charlie took a breath.
Keep it together.
He was proud of that. His voice only caught a little.
No response. Just the muttered sounds of Hideyoshi relaying the situation to the new arrivals.
Then, in a voice of pure fact, Charlie’s mother spoke.
“Charlie,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there. We’re having enchilada wraps for dinner, and none of this is ever getting close to you again. You hear me?”
“… Yeah. Ok.”
When Jacqueline Vance spoke again, the words were not directed at her son.
“I’ll have a portal open in two minutes. Have a plan ready by then, or I’m leaving you behind.”
The middle-eastern voice answered first.
“I haven’t cast a spell in almost a day. I’m at full power.”
“Me as well,” Tsuru agreed. “Minus a couple of teleports. I don’t think raw force should be an issue. The only concern is the woman they’ve got in charge.”
The stranger started to reply, before Hideyoshi cut him off.
“You leave their leadership to me,” he said. “I have a score to settle with the woman who broke my spine.”
Charlie opened his mouth, but Tsuru spoke before he could.
“Absolutely not,” she said, her tone firm. “You are to stay in the rear in case we need artillery. I am not letting you fight her with an injury.”
Hideyoshi started to reply. This time, it was Charlie’s turn to interrupt.
“Do you mean the woman who teleported me?” he asked. “Cuz she’s dead. Twenty Three killed her the moment we got here.”
A moment’s quiet.
“How sure are you?” Tsuru asked.
“Pretty sure.” Charlie shrugged. “She got stabbed like, seven times cuz Twenty Three had a meltdown.” There was something deeply wrong, Charlie thought, about being able to say those words in so matter-of-fact a manner. “… I think I might need therapy.”
“Right,” Tsuru resumed. “Hideyoshi will take the lead, then. Binyamin and I can stay in reserve.”
Hideyoshi let out a quiet mutter something along the lines of: “Trust your damned husband, woman.”
Charlie cleared his throat.
“Uh. Twenty Three says she’s gonna get me to a car. She needs you to hold em off while we-”
“Stay exactly where you are,” came Hideyoshi’s answer. “You’re in the southern cell-block. As long as I know that’s where you are, I can make sure you don’t get hit.”
Charlie glanced towards the ceiling.
“The roof’s still glowing.”
“That just means we have to hurry.”
A few ever tenser moments later, Jacqueline announced the portal ready, and Hideyoshi barked the order to advance, leaving Charlie presumably alone with James. The silence that followed then held a very different kind of tension.
“… Still there?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah,” James replied. “Me and your mom. She’s holding the portal open.”
“Right.” Charlie contemplated his life for a second, then took a breath. “So,” he tried. “I’m uh. I’m straight-”
“Right,” came James’ overly hastened reply. “Sure. Cool. Of course you are. Great.”
Another awkward moment’s quiet, then Charlie started laughing.
“Such, a freaking, dork.”
“… Shut up.”
In the quiet that followed, the elemental began laying down his siege.