“I still don’t really know what happened,” Jackie muttered, her words coming out calmer, now, slower; hands wrapped tight around a mug of instant coffee. “Whatever it was, it got inside my head. Made the memories harder for me to get to. Every time I try, it’s like I’m pulling teeth.”
They’d moved into the sitting room upon Peter’s rushed arrival home; himself and, to a lesser extent, Casper, helping to ease Jackie back into a state where she could talk. She gave James a look over the lip of her mug. She looked like she hadn’t slept or showered in a year.
“Sorry for shaking you like that. I was having a bit of a day.”
“S’fine,” James said quietly from the pouffe by the door. He gave her a smile. “I’ve had days like that.”
Jackie snickered to herself, tension still evident in the setting of her shoulders, the twitching in the muscles about her throat.
“Not like this, you haven’t.” She took a deep breath, and turned to look at Peter. “I think… I think I found Charlie last night.”
James felt the world fall out from under him at that.
“… I see,” Peter said. “Where and how?”
Jackie shrugged, the movement just jerky enough to slosh some of the coffee from her cup, and shook her head.
“Still not a hundred percent on that,” she admitted. “Still too foggy. I think he came to visit me.”
“Mrs. Vance?” Casper muttered, off to the side. “No offense… You were pretty intense when you got here. Still kind of are. How do we know you’re not…”
“How do you know I’m not fucking crazy?” Jackie asked, the words just a touch accusatory.
Casper reddened a tad at that, but he didn’t back down. He rarely did anymore.
“… Yes,” he said eventually. “That.”
Jackie glared at him. He met her gaze, unmoving.
James looked away from them. There was a sinking in his gut. Hollow. He wanted to believe her. He really did.
“Why are you people so determined to believe he’s dead?” Jackie’s tone was angry. Or frustrated. It was hard to tell. Both, probably.
Peter let in a breath to speak, but James beat him to it. “You said he came to visit you?” he asked. “The Whale wouldn’t let him do that. It’s too clingy. It doesn’t sound… Real.”
He forced himself to look at Jackie’s face at the last few words. He wished he hadn’t. There was betrayal there.
“… You too, huh?” she said bitterly.
That stung. He got up to leave, unable to meet her gaze anymore. Behind him, he could hear his father offering a quiet reproach. He was gone before she gave a reply. He walked off towards the kitchen, not really sure where he was going. When he got there, he clambered up onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar and simply gazed at the kitchen wall. Not seeing it.
Casper joined him before too long, sitting at the stool to his right, reaching down to squeeze his wrist.
“They went to the lookout in Bermuda,” said the older boy. “She says there’s evidence. Your dad wanted to see.”
James nodded, still just staring at the wall, streaks of grease between the tiles.
“… Is she okay?” he asked eventually.
Casper shook his head.
“No,” he admitted. “She was right. There’s something weird in her head. It felt like a migraine. On steroids.”
James nodded. He didn’t really know what else to say.
“Why’d you leave?” Casper asked. “Don’t you wanna know what’s going on?”
James shook his head, a spike of guilt flaring in the back of his mind.
“Not if it’s wrong,” he admitted. “Like… If he’s really alive somewhere. I’d love that. But… I mean, It’s like you said. She didn’t look okay. And if this is just her having a breakdown…”
Casper shifted his grip down from James’ wrist, and gave his hand a squeeze.
“Don’t wanna get your hopes up?” he asked.
James nodded. He could feel the tears welling up behind his eyes. The urge to sniff. He blinked them back.
“… I already lost him once,” he mumbled. “Not again. I’m not believing it until we know for sure.”
Casper chuckled. “Fair.”
Neither spoke for a while. James wasn’t entirely sure how long they sat like that. Odd, really. He spent most of that time staring at a clock.
Eventually, Casper cleared his throat.
“Ok,” he said, pulling himself up off of his stool. “Come on. Your sad boy vibes are killing my buzz. Come with me.” He gave James’ hand a tug to pull him off his seat, then dragged him from the room, forcing him to float momentarily so as to avoid being pulled off balance.
“Where are we going?” asked James, quietly bemused.
“My room,” Casper answered. “Jam session. You and me. Right now.”
“You’re a seasoned combat mage,” Peter said evenly, gesturing to each of the ravaged trees in turn. “You could have done this on your own.”
Jackie laughed angrily.
“You are unbelievable,” she snapped. “All that talk about being here for me and the moment I ask for help, you turn your back.”
“I’m not turning my back,” Peter replied, the calm expression dropping from his face for a moment, before being forced back into place. “I’m asking for proof. Something I can act on.”
“This entire island is covered in portal scars! I can sense the residue everywhere I check! It’s his! His energy!”
“No one else can verify that,” said Peter. “None of the other portal makers knows his energy signature. You could be mistaken. Or lying.”
“Why would I lie about this!?” Jackie shrieked, a flare of anger alloying her frustration.
“Because you know that if you can convince me he’s alive, I’ll start helping you again. Take another leave of absence, start combing the area with you again. You think it’ll help-”
Jackie slapped him. He didn’t flinch.
“You wait right there, asshole,” she snapped. With that, she teleported back towards her cabin. Once inside, she strode the short distance to the sink, pulled the slime encrusted gobbet of Charlie’s hair out of the drain, and teleported back. Then, she threw it at Peter’s chest.
Peter grimaced as it made impact, taking an instinctive half-step backwards as it slapped wetly against his suit.
“There!” Jackie yelled, watching as he tried to wipe the mass from his lapels. “That’s his hair! He left it in my sink! You want something I can’t fake? There you fucking go!”
She was breathing hard now, furious. Why did every single thing have to get in her way?
Peter gazed at the tangle of hair, one eyebrow raised. Then, he looked at her.
“Okay,” he said, holding it up. “This, we can work with.”
Jamming with Casper was oddly soothing. James was into it, laying back on the older boy’s mattress, eyes half-closed, singing nostalgia songs to the rhythm of his friend’s acoustic. He liked this, not having to think. Inhale. Exhale. Sing.
Casper joined him once or twice, complementing the airy notes of his soprano with a lower harmony. James hid a snicker when Casper’s voice broke. The older boy went back to just the guitar after that.
They’d been at it for an hour, maybe more. Hard to say. Casper was practicing a bass-line by ear. James was curled up on the bed, flicking through anime hashtags on his instagram.
“You’ve got a nice voice, Cas,” he mused. “Why don’t you show it more?”
“I don’t like being in the spotlight, man. I’m not you.”
James looked up from his phone.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you like when people look at you,” he answered, hiding a snicker. “Kind of an attention whore.”
James threw a pillow at him.
“Am not,” he said, not actually that offended. “I just like being good at stuff. Making an impression, you know?”
“Yeah,” Casper teased. “Cuz you want everyone to like you.”
James raised an eyebrow at that, half-smiling.
“Dude. Of course I want everyone to like me. Everyone wants that. It’s how being popular works.”
Casper gave a quiet groan at the word ‘popular’.
“I don’t,” he said. “Sounds exhausting. And I don’t need everyone to be my friend. Cuz I’m not an attention whore.”
James gave a playful groan of his own.
“Just cuz I have more than five friends,” he teased back. “You’re just scared you might be good at it.”
Casper snorted at that and gave the bar he’d been working on a final shot. He nodded in satisfaction, then leaned back, gazing at the ceiling.
“… What’ll you do,” he asked. “If he really is alive?”
James tried to hide the pang in his heart at that question, not that hiding it would even work with Casper. He returned to his phone screen, absently clicking follow on some fanart of a ship he liked.
“I dunno,” he said eventually. “… Think he’d even want to see me?”
Casper glanced across at him.
“Why wouldn’t he?” he asked. “You mean cuz you couldn’t save him last time, or-”
“I did save him last time,” James replied, a touch harsher than he meant to. He felt a pang of guilt at that, but Casper waved it off before he could voice an apology. “… I mean. He was right there. I had him. And then he went and-” He lifted a finger to his throat, not quite able to put the act to words. Casper got his meaning, though. He knew the story well enough. He took a breath. “What if he’s still like that… What if he hates me now?”
Casper sighed, then set the guitar down, and shifted over across the bed, parking himself down a foot or so off to James’ side. There was an awkward silence as the older boy slung an arm around his shoulder.
“… What if it were me?” he asked eventually. “I mean, what if Father got hold of me and did his fucked up mind control stuff on me? What if I said you weren’t my friend anymore?”
James sucked a sharp breath in through his teeth at that. Father was a delicate subject. Not least because he was pretty certain that Casper still had contact with him.
“Easy,” he muttered, his temper flaring a tad in spite of himself, reciting the answer he’d decided on almost a year before. “I’d get Baba and Jiji’s help to beat the crap out of him and get you home. And then I’d smack you as many times as it took for you to remember that you’re not a sex toy. You’re my friend. I. Have. Dibs.” He prodded Casper in the side at that, giving him a hard look for maximum emphasis. It didn’t work. Casper was grinning ear to ear. “Don’t you smile at me! I’m serious!”
“I know you are,” Casper answered, his tone still a touch too light. “I just like your answer, that’s all. I’m glad I know you.” He leaned in, and James had about half a second to prepare for the impending kiss, before the taller boy changed direction at the last moment, and instead simply pecked him on the forehead.
James’ cheeks grew rather warm at that, flushed with embarrassed disappointment. Casper gave him a wink, gently teasing.
“So,” the older boy asked. “If that’s your answer for me, why’s it any different for him? The Whale’s got mind stuff too, you know.”
James gave his friend a glare, then a groan.
“… What if we can’t fix it, though?”
“Maybe you can’t,” he muttered. “But you can still try. Right?”
James considered that for a long moment, and conceded the point with a defeated huff.
He slumped backwards on the bed.
“… The kiss was a dick move, dude.”
“Well, who knows? Maybe I’ll do it for real next time.”