Casper sat huddled into the faded red leather of the seat, his body pressed tight into the corner. He found it was best to find small spaces when he had to deal with nerves. The nerves weren’t his, although that didn’t help much. There was a boy seated a few tables away and the nerves were coming off of him in waves, intensifying every time the young waitress made another circuit of the diner. Casper didn’t like the other boy’s feelings. They were agitating, tinged with a slightly alien, warm sort of emotion that he sometimes felt from those older than himself. It always made him a little uncomfortable.
Casper groaned as the waitress passed the older teen once more, eliciting a fresh wave of anxiety from him, and tried to find some way to distract himself. There were other emotions in the room, of course, emanating from the dozen or so customers and staff that littered the diner, but the nervous boy was, by far, the loudest of them. Casper tried to distract himself by focusing on the calmer, albeit quieter mind of an old man sitting a short way away, trying to drown out the other boy’s perpetual anxiety. It helped, a little.
Casper checked his phone, drumming his fingers impatiently against the greasy table top. She was meant to be here ten minutes ago. Where was she?
He resolved to give her another two minutes, a resolution that broke with yet another wave of anxiety from the nearby teenager who, he noticed, had just moved to flag down the waitress.
Casper tapped his phone a few times, his fingers shaking slightly as he pulled up the relevant contact information in his call list. The older boy was getting more and more nervous by the second, mumbling to the waitress in a voice too low to make out from this distance. Casper took refuge in the much calmer, mildly amused feelings emanating from the waitress. He pulled up a text message box and began to type. Before he finished writing, however, the phone pinged, the text window showing him a new message.
‘Hey Cas! Change of plans. Can u meet me? Tasha.’
Casper practically groaned with relief, picking up his phone and making his way to the door at a fast walk, trying to put as much distance between the nervous boy and himself as possible. A small bell chimed above the diner door as he pulled it open, drawing a glance from the balding man behind the cashier’s stand who, upon seeing that he wasn’t a new customer, swiftly returned his attention to polishing the counter.
As Casper took his first few steps out onto the street, the smells of car exhaust and recent rain washing over him, he felt the mood emanating from the diner change. Just as he was about to leave Casper’s range, the nervous boy’s emotions switched from trepidation to a strange, joy tinted relief, practically on a dime. The change caught Casper off guard and he stood still for a moment, letting himself bask in the now much more pleasant glow of the teenager’s mind. Just a few seconds in, the nervousness faded away, the memory of it much easier to take in retrospect. Curious, Casper took a step or two back towards the diner, glancing in through the window. The teenager was still sitting exactly where he had been, a wide grin now covering most of his face. The waitress tended to a different customer a little way away, her own expression largely unchanged. Stepping a little closer to her, Casper felt her feelings brush once more against his mind. Her thoughts were, much like the other teen’s, strangely happy, although lacking the strange, giddy quality of the boy’s.
Casper grinned. It was hard to help himself. The feeling he got from the two of them was a very pleasant one. He felt his phone ping in his pocket once more and pulled it out, noting the address that now flashed on the screen. He set off at a brisk trot, his mind far lighter than it had been a few moments ago.
Casper tried to keep a distance from other people as he made his way towards the meeting point, holding his power pulled in tight around himself. Pulling it back was easier with fewer people around. That was one of the many reasons why he tended to avoid crowds. Large groups of people had a tendency to be… challenging.
Casper hummed lightly to himself as he walked, holding the residual joy from the diner in his mind as best he could. After a few minutes, however, it began to fade, leaving a mild trepidation in its wake. When Tasha missed meetups, it usually meant she’d found herself a distraction. Casper rarely liked Tasha’s distractions.
As he drew close to the meeting point, Casper let his senses fold out to their full breadth once more, deciding it would be best to avoid walking blind into whatever it was that Tasha was doing this time.
He felt them immediately. Four points of emotion, one of them very recognizably Tasha, each one bright and intense. He would have called it anger, except that wasn’t quite the word. He’d felt real anger before, and this wasn’t it. This was simpler, purer in a way. Aggression. Casper felt his heart begin to beat faster at the very feel of it. Whoever was over there with her, they were fighting.
With some effort, Casper began attempting to weaken his power, limiting the input he felt drawing in from the four combatants and trying to bring himself back into a state of calm. Fight or flight was intense, especially from four people at once. It became just a little more bearable to him when one of the four lights flickered out in his mind’s eye. With a small sigh of relief, Casper slowed his pace, deciding it would be best to let Tasha finish before he arrived.
Casper sensed it as the two remaining strangers tried to fight, their emotions fluctuating moment to moment as blows were dealt, taken, or missed entirely. Even from this distance, unable to see the three fighters, Casper could tell it wasn’t going well for the two strangers. He felt Tasha’s attention shift to one of them as a blow was landed against her. She began directing the majority of her efforts towards the unfortunate individual as the second stranger began to circle around behind her.
The boy shrugged off his backpack, taking a moment to rummage around and eventually finding a small roll of cloth he had kept in the back pocket ever since he first met Tasha. He wrapped the scarf tightly around himself, concealing the lower half of his face as best he could before zipping up his bag and continuing on.
Another surge of emotion and a second light flickered out in Casper’s mind, leaving Tasha alone with the one who’d made his way behind her. Casper winced in sympathy. This last remaining opponent had managed to land a few blows on Tasha’s back. She wasn’t going to be gentle with him.
Casper rounded the corner to see a brown haired man struggling fiercely against a girl near enough a whole foot shorter than him, her skin so matted with partially healed bruises and perpetual sunburn as to render the original color virtually unidentifiable. As Casper watched, she rushed forward, attempting to wrap her arms around the larger man in an impromptu bear hug, only for him to slip an arm free and land a haphazard punch across her jaw. The two struggled for a few moments, the girl slowly restraining the man one limb at a time and bearing him to the ground. In different circumstances, Casper might have found it funny. A grown adult being wrestled to the ground by a girl who couldn’t have been any older than fifteen. Strangely, however, he was not in the least bit amused.
The girl glanced up at him, flashing a grin.
“Hey, Cas,” she said warmly. “Just gimme one sec, okay?” With that, she returned her attention to the pinned man. “Now then, Mr drug dealer,” she murmured, moving her mouth close to the older man’s ear. “You’re gonna sit nice and still while my buddy here goes through your friends’ pockets, okay?” The man’s response came as an angry exclamation, his face pressed so hard against the ground that the words were lost. The point, however, would have been clear even without an emotion sense. Tasha looked up to Casper and jerked her head towards the unconscious figures of the other two fighters.
Casper took a moment to calm himself. The adrenaline flowing through the other two minds pooling around him. He tried his best to separate it from himself, before moving forward, lifting his scarf to cover a little more of his face, and beginning to search the two men. Behind him, he could still hear the restrained dealer’s muffled swearing, cut short when Tasha placed a sharp strike against his midsection. The boy winced in sympathy at the man’s pain.
“Do you have to be so rough with them?” He asked quietly, his voice muffled slightly by the fabric layering his mouth.
“If I want them to take me seriously? Yeah.” The girl replied, her tone just a touch condescending. “I need them to be afraid of me, otherwise they won’t listen when I tell them to stop.” Casper wasn’t sure he believed that. He could feel the satisfaction of her victory radiating out from her. “So,” she asked. “Is he scared yet?”
Casper shook his head with an angry groan. He hated helping with this sort of thing and the rage emanating from the pinned man was not helping. Tasha’s excitement was worse, though, like salt in the wound.
“Of course not,” he muttered, irritated. “He just got done fighting. The only emotion he has right now is that he really wants to punch you. You have to let that wear off first if you want him to get scared.”
“Ok!” The girl answered, grinning at him. “Got it! Thanks, little buddy.”
Casper didn’t reply, focusing all his attention on searching the unconscious men. His task completed, the boy stood and made his way back outside. He began pulling his emotion sense back towards himself, shrinking his perception to a bubble only a few feet wide around him as he slumped himself against a tree, waiting in the cool evening air for his friend to finish up. He would have turned the power off completely, but he had no idea how. He felt the last of the anger leave his mind with a shudder and took a series of long, quivering breaths as he tried to calm himself. He hated being angry.
Tasha wasn’t long to follow, stepping back out herself a few minutes later and glancing around before catching sight of the boy and giving him a wave, heading over at a brisk trot.
“Heya, Cas,” she called as she came within earshot. “Sorry I didn’t make it earlier, I kinda found a thing.”
“I noticed,” Casper muttered, his eyes downcast. “I hate it when you make me watch that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah,” Tasha replied, her tone changing in an instant, becoming anxious. “I know. Sorry.”
Casper kept his eyes on the ground, trying to fight back the water from his eyes.
He felt her mind entering his little bubble just a moment before her hand grasped his shoulder. Her feelings surprised him. There was compassion there, sadness. She really was sorry, at least a little.
“Hey, I mean it, Cas,” she murmured. “I’m sorry I made you feel those things, okay?”
“… Then why’d you do it?” The boy asked, his voice small. He turned to face the girl, feeling, as he did so, a small tear trickling gently down his cheek.
“I… Sorry,” Tasha muttered. “I didn’t think. I just… I saw those guys and what they were doing and I… sorry.”
The words rang true to Casper, as did the emotion behind them. Shakily, the boy nodded, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
The older girl smiled, slinging an arm over his shoulders.
The two were silent for a long while as they began walking together in the rough direction of the diner. After a few minutes, Casper dug his hand in his pocket and passed the girl a crumpled wad of paper.
“H-here you go. The money from those guys you t-took down.”
Tasha took the money with a murmur of thanks, slowly counting out the bills for a few minutes, before offering Casper a few of the notes.
“Here. You deserve something too. You helped, after all.”
Casper would have objected. He didn’t need money. He didn’t want the money. But he knew Tasha would be offended if he refused. He tucked the small pad of notes into his pocket with a mumbled “Thanks.”
“So,” Tasha started, injecting a touch of energy into her voice. “Might as well get back to the point of our meetup. Have you found any new targets for me?”
Casper shook his head.
“Sorry, no. It’s… hard, trying to find bad people with just this sense to go on. It’s really difficult to be sure.”
Before he’d even finished, Casper could feel the disappointment roiling off of Tasha like a fine mist. She let out a dramatic sigh.
“Are you really trying, though?” She asked, glancing sidelong at him. “When you found me, you said you’d help me find bad people to rob instead of good ones. When you said that, I kinda thought you’d be sending more people my way.”
“Of course I’m trying,” the boy groaned. “It’s just really hard when you can see as much as I can. Like, I can tell there’s a robber in a shop, but I can see how desperate he is for money. Or I can tell you about the teacher who has dirty feelings about kids in his class, but I can also feel how guilty it makes him, and I can tell from the kids around him that he hasn’t done anything. It’s… complicated.”
Tasha thought about this for a moment, then grinned, her posture relaxing slightly.
“Sounds simple enough to me. Send me the ones who’ve actually done bad stuff and leave the pervy teacher alone, as long as he hasn’t done anything.”
“No,” Casper replied, shaking his head. “It’s not that easy. I’m the one who’s having to make those choices, I don’t wanna send you someone who isn’t really bad. That’d make me bad.”
“You said you’d send me bad people.” Tasha reminded him with a gentle prod to the side.
“Well… maybe there’s less really bad people in the world than I thought.”
Disapproval. Casper felt it flowing off of Tasha in waves, each surprisingly hurtful, coming from her.
“The world’s full of bad people,” she replied bluntly. “Trust me. What about your dad?”
Casper stopped dead, a note of fear playing sharp in his mind.
“No,” he answered, as firmly as he could, his voice still quavering just a little. “You don’t touch my dad.”
“Why not?” The girl asked, her free hand moving to Casper’s face, sliding a finger along the pale, freckly skin. “You gonna pretend he doesn’t hit you? Why else would you be hiding that shiner, huh?” Tasha’s finger traced along Casper’s face until it found the patch of swollen skin sitting under his left eye, prodding it and coming away dusted with makeup. The boy yelped in pain, pulling away. Tasha gazed at him balefully. “I bet he hits your mom too, huh? So why shouldn’t I hurt him, make him stop?”
The boy gazed at his friend coldly for a few seconds.
“Because he wouldn’t stop.”
The two stared at one another for a long moment, before Casper looked away, a touch regretful.
“I gotta go home,” he muttered. “See you.”
“Yeah,” Tasha answered, her voice and mind echoing the same regret as his. “Later.”
The boy trudged home in silence. He felt cold. Colder than he should have done in the mid-summer evening.