10 years ago, and James was 12 going on 13.
“13 is a lucky age to be,” they told him. “You’ll do great things this year.”
The day James turned 13, he killed a man.
James had three uncles, none of whom got on well with each other. James was constantly shuttled from uncle to uncle, but the day he turned 13 was the first time he was allowed to walk by himself from the train station to the home of Uncle #3.
There was James, feeling proud, feeling mature, feeling 13 years old; and there was a man with—a knife? a gun? bare fists?—and then everything was a blur.
For a while James insisted that it couldn’t have been his fault, because he hadn’t done anything. One moment he was walking and the next there was a dead man lying at his feet.
He didn’t believe it for long. That was okay, because no one else did either.
James had always been mature for his age, by nature calm, gentle, and obedient. At his mother’s funeral, there had been tears; at his father’s, silence, because he was older by then and knew better.
The night he turned 13, he threw his first tantrum. Dishes broke, windows exploded, and James wouldn’t leave the attic until his aunt threatened him with an exorcist.
The exorcist came anyway. He didn’t ask any questions, at least, not of James, only took one look at him and said, “I can teach you. Come with me.”
The exorcist called himself the Master. He lived in a little house in the suburbs, and he painted, mostly. The Master told James that there were certain people who were born with magic, and there were those who had the talent for manipulating it. The two generally went together, so James could probably learn to control his magic if he tried, hey?
James said he wanted to go home.
The Master said that those who didn’t control their magic were controlled by it.
James said he was done with magic, and he had school tomorrow.
The Master said that magic could never really leave a person.
James said that the magic had left him; he was sure of it. He had used it all up that day.
The Master said that it would come back eventually. Or he could give it back, but only if James promised to learn how to use it, hey?
James said yes.
James was never neglected, parentless though he was. It was like he had eight parents: three uncles, two aunts, two grandmothers, and an older cousin. But the Master wasn’t just a parent, he was also a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and above all, he was the Master. Quite frequently the Master was the one thing that stood between James and death, and he knew it, and the Master knew it. James learned to depend on the Master for everything, not just instruction, and the Master took the burden as if James really were his son.
Prior to his time with the Master, James had lived a very sheltered life. He had never cooked before; the Master made him cook if he wanted to eat. He had never seriously hurt himself before; the Master broke his first bone, but healed it as well, with a touch and a whisper. James had seen death before, three times; the Master told him to get used to it, and showed him many more.
James threw away his old surname as something useless that had ended with his unfortunate parents; the Master called him Bryan, saying something about a brother, but would not tell him further.
The Master provided Bryan with everything he needed: an endless supply of books, careful instruction, a parent’s love. All he wanted in return was a willingness to learn and unconditional obedience. Bryan gave it.
The Master didn’t just teach him about magic, but encouraged Bryan to study anything that took his fancy—philosophy, philately, philanthropy… He taught Bryan how to swim, how to take a fall, how to grow beautiful, thriving plants.
What he didn’t say he was teaching Bryan was how to be a human being. When Bryan managed to control his magic for the first time, the Master gave him a pat on the back. When Bryan rescued a little girl who’d fallen into swimming pool, the Master beamed and told him that he was really growing up now.
3 years ago, and he was 19 going on 20, James going on Bryan.
The Master said that 20 was a great age to be, and that Bryan would do great things that year, hey?
Bryan called him a liar and hid in the park for a week.
He wasn’t as spoiled as he’d been at age 12, Bryan, but he still thought the world revolved around him, and he did want to do great things.
It was spring when the T.H.E.Y. found him, but he wanted to do things right. He waited until June 22 to finally enlist, so he would have something to tell the Master when they met again and chatted over tea.
Two years, Bryan worked with T.H.E.Y., hiding from people because he didn’t know how to deal with them and being ignored because they didn’t know how to deal with him. He missed the Master some nights, most nights, and took up painting in his spare time. He had an uneasy friendship with the others on his team, and they felt close enough to take him out for drinks the night before his birthday and tell him that 22 would have to be a great year for him, because his birthday was on the 22nd, and that was cool, see?
He said that if anybody told him he was going to do great things that year, he would quit.
“You’re going to do great things this year,” one slurred.
They died the next day, all of them but Bryan.
You’re exempt from missions on your birthday, they told him, but that had never stopped him before, and he wanted to go anyway. By the time he finally got there, it was too late, and the only one left standing was the Master.
10 months ago, Bryan was exactly 22 years old, and his life was flashing before his eyes.
He relived 22 years in five seconds, and from it he could only make one conclusion, and that was the first thing he said: “I’ve missed you, Master.”
The Master expressed his regret to find Bryan, of all people, working for T.H.E.Y., the organization that claimed monopoly over trans-dimensional travel and intervened wherever and whenever they saw fit. The Master explained that his goal was to stop the organization. The threat went unsaid, or maybe it was just Bryan’s imagination: even if it means stopping you too, Bryan.
“Come to the dark side, hey?” the Master joked. “We have cookies.”
Bryan said, with a hypnotized sort of calm, that he was pretty sure he couldn’t do that, and the Master responded even more calmly: “Okay.”
At the Master’s sharp gesture, the magic tore itself from Bryan’s veins, through his skin, leaving little droplets of blood dripping from the infinitesimal punctures.
Help, Bryan typed without looking, and lay there on the grass until backup came, the sole survivor on a mission gone terribly wrong, feeling empty inside in more ways than one. He wished he could’ve gone with his magic when the Master had beckoned, back to the Master’s hands where he’d grown up, where he belonged.
Even after he recovered, Bryan could no longer work for T.H.E.Y. without his magic. The Master had told him that magic could never really leave, but if it was there, Bryan couldn’t even feel it, much less use it. Bryan settled down, bought a house.
Somewhere over his head, strings were pulled, forms were fudged, and suddenly someone showed up to tell Bryan that he was wanted back at T.H.E.Y., as a technical operative this time.
3 months ago, and Bryan was 22 going on 23.
He had his first mission, involving a captain, a ship, and a port. Bryan insisted on working solo. They caught him stowing away, and he couldn’t think how until the Master appeared before him again.
The T.H.E.Y. must be destroyed, the Master said. Do you want your magic back? You owe everything to me, hey? Help me.
Bryan said yes.
When he got off the ship, he checked the date on his handheld: April 7.
“What a lucky year,” he murmured to himself, as he read about disaster after disaster. “You will do great things, Bryan.”
He could only hope that he would die before June 22, so that he would never have to turn 23.