Casper Sullivan set the guitar on his lap and strummed a chord.
He winced. It was badly out of tune. No surprise, really. He hadn’t played it in, what? Eight months? Nine? He twisted a few of the keys, strummed again, twisted some more.
He started playing, plucking the bass-line to an old favorite from memory, trying not to think.
It felt weird being back in his old house; off-axis, sitting on a bed he hadn’t touched in almost a year, trying to ignore the thin coating of dust that lay over everything he owned. Used to own.
Why did none of it feel like his?
He kept playing. He’d been good at the guitar. Still was, apparently.
It didn’t take up much of his attention.
He cast a glance back toward the cardboard box beside the door, then once more looked about the room.
What was he supposed to want from here? The bookshelf full of stories he had half-memorized? The trading cards he’d long-since replaced? The action figures once played with by a younger, happier kid?
None of it meant anything to him anymore.
He wasn’t even mad. It just felt weird.
He stopped the song midway, and let himself fall back against the bed, gazing at the ceiling.
‘Oh yeah. I remember putting up those stickers. Mom got so mad.’
He felt his lips crawling toward a smile, and put a stop to it. She wasn’t worth a smile.
The divorce had been finalized that morning. Splitting everything down the middle. It turned out that meant selling off the house.
It was kinda fitting that this would never be his room again.
Leave it to the kid who used to hide his bruises.
He snickered at himself.
‘I should learn to play some emo rock.’
The door creaked open an inch or so.
“Need something?” he asked.
“Just checking in,” Sarah murmured from outside. “I heard the guitar. You’re pretty good with that thing.”
A brief pause, then:
“Your dad’s here.”
Casper closed his eyes.
“I thought he was coming later on.”
“He was.” She hesitated for a moment. “He says he has something for you.”
“Great. Even more crap I don’t want.”
Sarah didn’t chide him for the jab. He was glad of that. She understood, on a level. She opened the door a little further, gazing at him through the crack.
“Want me to make him leave?”
“Got everything you want to take?”
“Just this,” he gestured to the guitar. “Everything else feels weird-” he stopped himself as a thought occurred. “Hang on.”
He pushed himself off the bed, then crawled underneath it.
He could feel Sarah watching him from the doorway while he searched, but she said nothing. A minute or so later, he clambered back out, a moth eaten stuffy clutched in one hand.
It was an old thing, slightly tattered; one of its button eyes torn out whoever knew how long ago.
“Think Bex’d mind looking after Mr. Bearford?” he asked, his cheeks a little red. “I owe him a better home.”
“She’s Bex. She won’t say no.”
“Yeah. She’s cool like that.” He proffered the stuffy, and Sarah took it. Then, he hefted his guitar and slung it awkwardly against his back.
“Want me to stay up here?” Sarah asked as he stepped past her. “I’m here if you need it.”
“It’s fine,” he murmured. “It’s just dad.”
In spite of the words, he found himself hesitating at the top of the stairs.
It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t anger, either. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to feel anything at all for the old man lately. Just a dull, depressive kind of ache. Every time they spoke, he came away tired.
He took a deep breath, and stepped on down the staircase. Ray was standing by the door with a plastic wrapped box under one arm.
There was something strange about seeing his dad here now; his broad frame a size too large for the confines of the hallway. Once, he’d been imposing. Now, he just seemed big.
“Finally split up with Mom, huh?”
Casper opened his mouth to say something snide, but the words didn’t come. He didn’t know what to say.
“Feels weird being back, you know?” he murmured instead, gesturing at the house around them. “I don’t think I like the kid who used to live here.”
His father smiled. “I liked him.”
“You had a funny way of showing it,” came the reply before Casper could think to stop it. He winced. So did Ray. He hadn’t meant it as a jab.
Ray started to apologize. Casper cut him off.
“Why are you here, dad?” he asked. “I didn’t want to see you yet.”
Another apology. Casper didn’t acknowledge it. A moment’s quiet, then his father proffered the box from under his arm.
“Wanted to give you this,” Ray said. “And to say sorry. I feel like I’m doing that a lot today.”
“What for this time?” Casper asked, one eyebrow raised, not approaching to take the box.
The man shrugged.
“You said there’d be no point to coming home if there wasn’t a home to come back to. Then I went and broke it.”
In spite of himself, Casper snickered.
“Splitting up with Mom doesn’t make it broken. Hell, it might be part of how we fix it.”
His father frowned at that, the arm with the box lowering back down. A slight shake of the head.
“Why do you hate her so much?”
Casper leaned against the wall, arms folded, careful not to bump his guitar.
“You still care?” he asked.
“Of course I care,” Ray replied, almost offended. “She’s my wife.” A touch of regret, then he corrected. “Was my wife.”
More uncomfortable quiet.
“She wasn’t the one who hurt you, Casper. I was. Why won’t you let her see you?”
Casper gazed at the ground, his fingers tapping against his arms. It made him angry.
“I’m not that petty, Dad,” he answered eventually. “I get why you hurt me. I get why she wanted you to do it. There’s a big world out there, and if I didn’t have my powers, it’d probably already have stamped me flat. I get why you did it. I might even be able to forgive you for it one day.” He looked up to meet his father’s gaze. “But she lied.”
“But I lied-” Ray began. Casper cut him off.
“It’s not the same,” he said flatly. “You lied by acting like a psycho. Made me think you just went crazy on your family. I thought you were bipolar or something, I dunno. But Mom let me think she was on my side. I hate that.”
Ray didn’t answer that. He spent a dozen or so seconds just gazing at his son, then huffed a breath, and set the box down carefully on the hall table.
“I’ll get out of your hair,” he said tiredly. “Thanks for hearing me out.”
Casper rolled his eyes. “If there’s something you wanna say, say it.”
“Nope,” Ray replied, a small smile on his lips. “I know that look in your eye. Anything I said right now would just sound like I’m defending her. That’s not a trap I’m stepping in today.”
“Would you be defending her, though?” he asked.
“Course I would,” Ray answered. “I owe her that much.” He gave his son another smile, then turned towards the door, tapping the box on the way out. “Enjoy your present. I’m sorry I couldn’t bribe you with it like I promised.”
Casper had just enough time to raise an eyebrow at that, before his father was gone. He approached the box and lifted a corner of the plastic.
It was a playstation.
He wrapped it back up again.
Now he felt bad. Great.
“You doing okay?” asked Sarah from the stairs.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He shook his head, and heaved a sigh. “Think James is doing okay?”
James was reading romance stories with his headphones on when the car finally crossed the storm front. With the music playing and his eyes on the phone screen, he struggled to spot the difference. Then, his travel companion prodded him in the shoulder, and his soothing lo-fi was disrupted by one of his headphones being pulled to the side.
“Look alive, Kid. We’ve hit the hot spot.”
James scowled. He still hadn’t forgiven agent Finch for the basketball thing. But, he peeled his eyes from the screen all the same. He looked out the window. Sure enough, it was raining outside. According to the data he’d been given, it had been doing nothing else here for almost a month; a thirty-mile bubble of stormclouds that refused to move or let up with the constant downpour; all centred on some outpost town in Oregon.
It was the perfect test-run for him. A mid-scale magical event, big enough to cause some harm if no-one intervened, but small and isolated enough that it probably wouldn’t make the news if he screwed it up. What was one more crazy cabin guy who said he saw a teenager do magic? Not that it mattered. James didn’t plan on being sloppy.
He gazed out at the deluge, watching how the drops spattered in the vast puddles they’d formed among the treeline. He’d never realized a forest could have a flood.
“You said they had a witness after we set off,” he said. “Any chance I’ll get to talk to him?”
“Not directly,” he replied. “You’ll be in the observation room while I talk to him. You can ask your questions through me, if I think they’re appropriate. There’s no way we can spin a kid working for the feds.”
James nodded at that. It seemed fair enough. He went back to staring out the window.
For ten minutes, neither spoke. He reached up to tug his headphones back into place.
“Wait up,” Finch murmured. “Before you go back to your yaoi fanfic or whatever, I want to know what you plan to do when we get there.”
“… It’s not yaoi,” James muttered, his face reddening.
“Don’t lie to me.” Finch chuckled. “I’ve been looking at the chapter titles.”
‘I hate you so much.’
Cheeks burning, James leaned towards the glove compartment, and fumbled for the fold-out map.
“Okay, fine,” he huffed. “So, my first thing is I want to deal with the lake.” He pointed at the blue blob circling around the town’s north-eastern perimeter. “If it takes on much more water, half the town’s gonna flood. So I figure if I go to the far side, back where it joins up with the nature reserve, I can dig a trench and start diverting the water into this river over here.” He trailed his finger along the map in demonstration.
Finch grunted, quietly impressed.
“Smart move. What made you think of it?”
“Minecraft.” James shrugged. “After that, I wanna talk to this witness guy before I put a plan down.”
Finch inclined his head.
“Okay. We can go with that.”
James nodded. Then, after a brief wait in case Finch planned to interrupt again, he went back to his story. He’d been up to chapter three.
Chapter Three: The Hawk and the Silvermane.
Ceros Firewind had known of the Silvermanes for most of his life. They were difficult to avoid, growing up in the outskirts of Mymaeria. They were the protectors of the wall, and among the gallant few who dared ride through the unfound lands. For Ceros, however, it was different. Their young lord, Astra of the platinum hand, had once been his closest friend.
Ceros had not seen him since they were boys, and in that one moment, it was clear just how time had changed him.
The piercing blue of Astra’s eyes never used to hold such pain-