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A Growing Lad

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“You want some hot chocolate?”

Cory looked up from his knees, his gaze settling on the steaming thermos lid that was being offered. “Thanks, Ranger Danvers.” The blanket around Cory's shoulders was singed in places and offered a mostly symbolic comfort. He gathered it closer with his free hand anyway.

“Weird times, huh?” The ranger settled themself on the floor of the van next to Cory, their legs swung out of the door. Little pebbles crunched underfoot as Cory shuffled along to make room.

Cory sipped the absurdly sweet hot chocolate to buy time before he had to answer. The small human noises of the pair seemed to drain away into the Alaskan dark. The forest was teeming with unknowable life just beyond the circle of light the van's inside lamp cast, and Cory felt…

“Feels like there's been a lot of weird days lately.” Or like he had been let in on a secret supply of endless weird, terrible days where his friends and neighbours were attacked by monsters.

His tone mustn't have been as casual as he had meant, because Riley looked concerned when they replied. “It feels like that, yeah, but we've got some good people looking out for us. The monsterhunter ladies won't be long and they'll bring back whatever it is that you saw, and then you can go home and get some rest.”

Because that was the problem, wasn't it? The thing that had been featuring so heavily in Cory's dreams since school had started again. The thing that had appeared in the corner of his vision for weeks, never there when he turned his head, looking out of the darkness when he tried to close his eyes, but never looking clear enough for him to make out features. The reason he had been living on catnaps and coffee until Zoey had found him unconscious in one of the booths at Big Billy's Diner and dragged the story out of him.

Cory shook his head, cast around for a topic that would help him stay awake. “Do you ever join them? The trio who are out capturing my boogeyman?”

“No, that's not something I do, at least not yet. And I don't think it's a boogeyman if that makes you feel any better.”

It didn't. Cory couldn't decide if he still wanted to know about Moriah and her friends’ heroic business, and after weeks of broken sleep and terrifying visions he knew he was too exhausted to think about it. “Not yet? So are you doing, like, a monster hunting internship? Waiting to be called up to the plate?”

Riley wasn't totally comfortable with how much secret knowledge Siobhan was sharing with the kid (the kid! They could call someone ‘kid’!) but they knew it was a decision for Director Kennedy to make, not Riley. “It's not quite as simple as…”

Whatever the young ranger had been intending to say was lost as Cory heard a very human scream nearby.

“Moriah?!” Cory yelled before Riley managed to clap a hand over his mouth.

“Shushhh!” Riley was standing, hauling Cory to his feet and backing them both into the van. They let Cory go when he was relatively steady leaning against the corner where the mesh of the cage met the van wall. “Stay there, stay quiet.”

The last thing Cory registered for a while was Riley stepping down from the van to the ground outside, and the slide of metal against metal.

***

It was nearing 4am when things settled down and Martha could finally exhale. The whole lot of them had been in the Ranger Station for hours now. First they'd been working out how to get the thing out of Cory, then either waiting or helping, and now three of them waiting in the slowly rising tension.

Martha was sitting in one of the chairs she had stolen from Director Kennedy's office, with Moriah sitting in the other. Both sat with their backs to the wall of the once secret medical room. On the other side of the wall there was a teenager now purged of supernatural gunk (hopefully) and the two most senior Park Rangers in Revenant tending to his cryptomedical needs.

The tall figure of Riley flitted around the otherwise empty station in high agitation: now they were stacking paperwork, now checking the status of the coffee pot, now scanning the notice board yet again, now hovering near the two waiting in the corridor.

“Wanna sit with us, Riley?” Moriah's voice was soft in the way it only ever really was when she was exhausted.

Riley nodded vaguely and just sat right down against the opposite wall. “Yeah, thanks.”

“He'll be okay, you know? They know what they're doing and he'll be right as rain in no time.” Martha was almost desperate not to see Riley cry. It had already been a godawful night.

“Oh, of course! Cory's going to be fine before school tomorrow. He's probably gonna need to get some real sleep before he goes back in.” Riley had lowered their eyes to the skirting board behind the two women.

None of them were qualified to help, and none of them knew how to comfort each other. The silence stretched out in the brightly lit station and lingered.

***

“You can read minds?!” Cory winced when he heard how much excited squeak was in his voice.

“I didn't say that, and keep it down. If you can't keep a secret you're gonna have a rough time with this.” Martha was ostensibly out to check her traps, but was taking scenic routes to give Cory more time to process.

To his credit, he did lower his voice to a more reasonable level. “‘This’ being the supernatural underworld of Alaska, right? And you're all part of it, you and your friends!”

Martha gave Cory a Look.

“... and me now?”

“And you now. This isn't something in a comic book, though, Cory. I can't teach you how your own brain works.” It ached in Martha's chest to see Cory deflate from the corner of her eye. Well, that was tough for both of them.

The rangers had done their best with their bizarre high-tech secret medicine room and their understanding of the gunge that had taken over Cory's mind. They hadn't been able to get it all out without performing brain surgery though, and Cory's visions hadn't gone away. They were apparently a lot less scary now.

“How does it work for you?”

Martha resisted the urge to speed up and walk away from the conversation. “It depends.” After a moment of quiet she added, “Sometimes it feels like I'm reading minds, but mostly it's more like I'm a… a radio that keeps tuning into different stations without touching the dial. And sometimes it's other things too.” She shrugged, trying to convey an ease she's never felt.

Cory seemed to realise he had reached the bottom of the shallow well of Martha's expertise. They spent the rest of the walk talking about school, hunting, the weather, and their fellow monster encounterers.

It was with gratitude that Martha reported that Cory seemed to like them all. Hopefully between the lot of them they could make one decent mentor for the kid.