“So…” Casper asked. “What happens now? You gonna ask me stuff about what happened, or…”
Doctor Sharpe shrugged, sidling across to the wall at the base of the staircase and leaning against it on her shoulder, placing her coffee cup on the floor.
“If that’s what you want me to do, then sure,” she murmured. “Pretty sure it’s not, though. I know I wouldn’t want to start there.” Behind her, Peter stepped inside and hung up his coat, before moving on past the two of them towards his office.
“I’ll be around if you need me,” he called behind himself. “But you’ll need to come in. I’m gonna have earphones on to give you some privacy.”
“Thanks.” Both Casper and the Doctor replied at once.
“… So,” she asked, returning her gaze to him. “How’s living here working out for you? Peter seemed to think you were settling in pretty well.”
Casper gave the woman a shrug, resting his chin on his arms, themselves balanced on his knees.
“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s going good, I think. I feel safer here; that’s for sure.”
“That’s good,” she nodded. “And you’re settling in with the family well?”
“I think so. Bex is acting like I’ve lived here forever already,” he smiled. “Kid’s a hugger. Peter and Sarah have been really nice, too.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. And James?”
Casper hesitated a fraction of a second at that, but just a fraction. James had been being weird lately.
“Yeah. James is cool. He still won’t admit how lame some of his anime are.”
To that, the Doctor laughed.
“Oh, so he’s dragged you into them too, huh?”
“Maybe.” Casper grinned.
“So,” she murmured, her voice more casual now. “Everything’s good? You’re not having any problems?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I think so, at least. I mean, what am I supposed to say? It’s not perfect, but I like that no one hits me?”
“Yeah,” Doctor Sharpe agreed. “I see your point. But there’s more to making sure you’re in a good place than just making sure you’re physically safe.” She hesitated for a moment there, then shrugged and lowered herself to the ground, sitting at the base of the stairwell in a squat. “Okay. Tell you what. You tell me the three biggest problems you have with staying here, and we can go from there to see if there’s any need to change things up a little.”
For a while, Casper didn’t answer, simply gazing down at her in thought.
“… A little.” He muttered. “… These are nice people. I don’t wanna complain, you know?”
“I get that,” came the reply. “But you’re staying with this family for at least the next couple of weeks. Probably months. That means that right now, these guys are acting as a foster family to you, even if it’s not official. So, I think it’s important to make sure you can make a place here.”
Doctor Sharpe picked up the coffee cup by her side, and brought it to her lips.
“Damn.” She sighed. “Empty. So, if your problems with staying here are small, then that’s great. It means good things, just teething pains. But if they’re big, then I think they need to be addressed, and I think you deserve to have some backup when it comes to addressing them, because it’s important that you’re able to speak your mind.” She shrugged. “So, what have you got for me?”
Again, he hesitated for a while before he spoke.
“… I don’t like all the Japanese,” he muttered, embarrassed.
“The Japanese?” the Doctor asked. “What do you mean?”
“… Everyone else here speaks Japanese like, really well, and I think they keep forgetting I can’t? So they’ll get like, halfway through a conversation at dinner, and I’ll just be sitting there like a lump because I don’t know what anyone’s saying.”
“… Yeah. I can see why that’d get to you.”
“It makes me feel dumb.” He shifted his gaze to his feet, hiding his cheeks behind his knees.
“That’s fair,” Natalie murmured. “And the second one?”
“… It feels rude to say.”
“Heh,” she chuckled. “I asked for this, Casper. If anyone, it’s me that’s being rude.”
Casper took a deep breath.
“… The food’s weird,” he muttered. “Like, Peter works late, and Sarah went back to the university after James got a little better, and I don’t think she really knows how to cook anyway. So, like, all we eat at dinner are these store bought lasagne things? They’re kinda gross.” He paused. “Am… Am I allowed… I mean, I’m still furious with her, but… Am I allowed to say I miss my Mom’s cooking?”
“I think you’re allowed to say whatever you like,” came the reply after a moment. “And how would you want that problem to be fixed? Just better food?”
“No,” he grumbled. “That just sounds dumb. And I get it; they’re busy. But, like… I can cook. Mom taught me. So I was thinking… Maybe I could make dinner?”
“That sounds like a fair thing to ask,” Natalie nodded. “I could help you talk to them about it, if you like. I don’t see it being too big of a problem, as long as you prove you can do it safely and they keep a few of those dreaded store lasagnes in the freezer.” She shot him a small smile. “And your third problem?”
Casper considered this one for a while.
“… Honestly, it’s kinda hard to think of anything else I have a problem with. I like it here. I’m happier.”
“Heh,” she chuckled. “A teenager without complaints. I should write a paper on you.”
Casper opened his mouth to snipe something back, but she raised a hand.
“Sorry. That was a bad one. I’ve had a long day.” She rubbed her eyes. “Okay. That sounds good so far. A couple problems settling in, but stuff we can fix. That’s good. How about your parents?”
“… What do you mean?”
“Well,” she murmured. “Where do you want to go from here? Do you plan on staying away from them forever? Do you want to try and fix things? How do you want this to resolve?”
Casper mulled the question over for a few moments, then gave the older woman a defeated shrug.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “To be honest, when I ran away… I wasn’t exactly planning on staying away forever. I just wanted to get away. I couldn’t stand being with them right then, you know?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I can get that.”
“But,” he sighed. “The more I stay away… The more I kinda wanna keep staying away. I mean, at first, I was angry. Like, really, really angry; just thinking about everything they did and just… All the fear.” He took a breath, spending a moment to try and let the anger pass before it had a chance to build, just as Freja had shown him. “But now, I don’t even know. It’s like… Like they just make me kinda sick?”
“Do you wanna talk to them?”
“… I dunno.”
“You know you don’t have to be scared anymore, right?” she asked. “You have the pow-”
“I’m not scared,” Casper snapped, once more trying to let his anger flow away from him. “I’m done with that shit. I know that if I went back, right now. I could call Peter, or Sarah, or you, and whatever they did, they’d be punished for it.” He reached down towards the stair below him, his knuckles rapping out an agitated staccato against the wood. “But I don’t want it to be like that. I fucking hate the idea that they’d only hold off of hurting me because they knew it could get them in trouble, you know?”
He lifted his gaze towards Natalie and was momentarily surprised. His vision was blurry. Was he crying? He wiped his eyes. She was moving forwards. Not far, but a little. When she reached the base of the steps, he felt her mind graze against the edge of his bubble. He shifted back. He didn’t want to feel her pity.
The two were silent for a time then, Natalie leaning carefully against the bannister while Casper dried the anger from his eyes.
“What would you say to them?” she asked. “If they were here.”
“I’d tell them I used to let myself go hungry at school,” he muttered, his voice tired. “Because grabbing my lunchbox meant being in the kitchen with them.”
In the corner of his eye, the Doctor nodded.
“… I’d tell Dad how much I hated it when he stopped being able to look me in the eye.” He allowed himself a hollow chuckle. “I’d tell Mom how I hate that she still can.” He hesitated. “…I’d tell her she’s disgusting… And him? I’d tell him he’s just a coward… More than anything, I’d tell them how badly I want to hate them.”
“Would you like to be able to say that to them, some day?”
“… Yeah,” he muttered. “To be honest… Yeah. I kinda would.”