Care: 6.4

Previous Chapter:

Casper:

Casper didn’t know exactly what he had been expecting. But it hadn’t been silence.

They’d agreed to meet up at a bowling alley, the idea spurred along by some bitter recollection of a happy family moment. Something they both enjoyed. That was the idea, at least.

For the moment, they were seated in the alley’s diner, a partially walled off space within the rest of the larger complex, differentiated only by a slightly stronger smell of grease. Plastic tables, plastic tablecloths; some acne covered teenager manning the snack counter, looking just as enthused as Casper felt; most of his attention focused on his iPod, earphones in.

His father had ordered a serving of fries. Those fries now sat between them, untouched. Neither had spoken in half an hour. Casper sat there, arms crossed, and gazed evenly into his dad’s face, counting the minutes until Ray made eye contact.

He hadn’t wanted this. James had talked him into it. The boy told him he was dumb for hanging out with a pedo just because he was angry with his folks. He’d tried to disagree. Tried to explain why it was more complicated than that. He hadn’t managed to come up with an argument.

Ray opened his mouth. Casper raised an eyebrow. Ray closed his mouth. Casper rolled his eyes.

“It saved my life, you know,” he muttered. His dad finally looked up at him as he spoke. “What you did. It helped me move when the elves attacked. It helped me stay myself when Father tried to take me. It even let me help a friend when she got herself in trouble. What you did to me helped. It sucked; but it helped.” He picked up a french fry. It hung, limp and cold between his fingers. He dropped it back in the basket. “So why am I still so angry.”

His father didn’t answer. As much as Casper tried not to care, he couldn’t help but notice how bad he looked. His hair was matted, his skin grey; a day or more of stubble sitting along his jaw. For the moment, he was glad he’d sat far enough away to avoid his father’s emotions. He didn’t want to know how the man felt right now.

Ray Sullivan gazed blankly at his son for a while, then began to speak.

“I think your mom and I are splitting up,” he murmured. There was nothing there inside his voice. “We had a fight last night. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”

Casper opened his mouth, his intent to say something cold. The words didn’t come.

“… I’m sorry to hear that.” He was surprised to find he actually meant it. “Is it because of me?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply. “She still thinks what we did to you was worth it.” Ray shifted his gaze up to the ceiling. “… I can’t anymore.”

Casper raised an eyebrow at that, curious in spite of himself.

“What changed?”

“Peter told us what’s been going on,” Ray droned. “Nearly getting taken by the elves. Nearly getting taken by Father. Your mother thinks it’s like you said. Your powers kept you safe. Maybe she needs to think that. I don’t know. I tried to agree with her. Wanted to be on the same side. But every time I try to think that way, I remember how it felt to see you crying, and my head starts screaming that all the danger you were in was on a path we chased you into.” He let out a single, listless chuckle. “It reminds me how badly we failed you.”

Casper scowled. It was odd to hear a thing like that from his dad. Satisfying wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and aggravating.

“If you could go back,” he asked. “Back to when I was nine, and do it all right the first time; scare me so much that you wouldn’t have to do it again. Would you do it?”

Ray shrugged.

“I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I’d have said yes, but-” he shook his head. “God, I don’t think I have the energy anymore. It sounds awful of me to say, but you have no idea how much it hurt to see you sca-.”

“Scared?” Casper snapped, suddenly incensed. “Oh, I know. That’s the thing you don’t get. You wanna know what my power is?” he tapped his head. “I’m an empath. Every single time you hit me after I manifested, I could tell exactly how bad you felt. I knew how empty Mom felt when you hit her.” He laughed, high and angry. “That’s the only reason I stayed with you as long as I did. Because I couldn’t get my head around why you’d be doing it if you felt that way. Then, one night, I come home, and I hear you fighting, and I figure it out. And all I can say about it is fuck you.” He watched as his father buried his head in his hands. “Fuck everything about you.”

When he’d finished saying his piece, Casper was fuming; emotion feeding on itself like a fire inside his skull. He watched his dad sit there, hands still pressed against his face, and wished he could tell if he was crying. Just to see if it made a difference. Ray’s breaths were heavy, slow. Not quite tears, if he had to guess. Too tired. Just Processing.

It was like that for a minute, at least.

When Ray finally spoke, there was nothing left in his tone. Not even exhaustion. He was just flat.

“Are you ever coming home?” he asked.

“What home?” Casper spat. His dad flinched. He sighed. “… Is there even anything for me to come back to now?”

After a long pause, Ray shook his head. It was that moment, in the end, when his father finally cried. He rested his elbows against the table, smushed his palms against his eyes, and began to moan; just these, low, wracking sobs. It was pathetic. It was gross. Casper couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

He pushed himself up out of his chair, rubberized feet skidding along oily tiles, and walked away.

“I can’t watch this,” he said behind himself. “I’m going bowling. Come find me when you pull it together.”

He stepped out past the plastic wall, and into the main area. It was almost empty, just three or four groups scattered amongst the lanes. A pair of teenagers were on an obvious date about a third of the way down, a cluster of kids and adults that bore the look of some kind of school group gathered at the opposite end, and in the middle, James and Sarah, here to supervise, just in case.

Neither of them commented as he placed himself on one of the seats, waiting to join the next game. James cocked an eyebrow at him, his expression curious. Casper shook his head. No further conversation needed.

They were partway into the next game when Ray finally re-emerged, his eyes dry, if a little puffy. Casper paid him no real heed. It was his turn. He just focused on lining up his shot.

“Hey,” Ray murmured quietly as he closed in.

“Hey,” Casper replied, uncaring.

“Sorry about that,” his father murmured. “Just-” he let out a humorless chuckle. “Just dealing with the fact that the people I love most in this world both hate me and want me to find somewhere quiet to die.”

Casper frowned. That… That stung.

“Not funny, Dad,” he muttered reproachfully.

Ray shook his head.

“Look,” he sighed. “I’m trying my hardest here, okay?”

Casper bit back the instinct to say something snide.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay.” He went back to lining up his shot, tuning out the sounds of Ray and Sarah’s perfunctory exchange of greetings. He took his go and watched, uncaring, as the ball rolled true, straight for the centre of the pins. This was followed by a momentary annoyance as the ball swerved off the track at the last second, one pin falling over, seemingly of its own accord. He shot a suspicious glance at James. The younger boy stuck out his tongue. He chuckled. 

Little cheater.

He sat down beside the other boy, eyes forward. He felt James’ hand give his own a squeeze, an unspoken care echoing silently through his friend’s head. Then James got up to take his shot, followed only a second or so later by Ray taking his place on the bench, a tired malaise radiating from his surface thoughts like an armor made of sad. Casper tried to block it out and, for a moment, was surprised that it seemed to work, the feeling fading fractionally inside his head, second by second. Then he realised. His dad was simply comforted, just by sitting there beside him.

Casper sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to come back yet. I still get angry when I think of you. I don’t know if that will go away.” He braced himself for another wave of sadness from his dad, but it never came. Ray just nodded quietly, accepting it. Casper shook his head. “But even if I forgave you, It’s not like I’d want to come back if I know you’re both like this,” he gestured broadly at his father’s dishevelled state. “Seriously, Dad. You look like crap.”

Ray chuckled.

“I haven’t slept in three days.”

Casper rolled his eyes.

“The point,” he continued. “Is that there has to be a home for me to come back to. You’ve gotta be worth it, you know?”

In spite of himself, Ray snickered.

“And here I was thinking we could just offer to buy you a playstation.”

Casper grinned.

“Well. I mean. That wouldn’t hurt.”

Once again, they sat quietly. It was Casper’s turn to bowl. He didn’t move.

“So,” he said eventually. “You heard about my stuff with Father?”

A quiet dread rose up inside Ray’s skull.

“Yeah. I heard.”

Casper nodded.

“So, what do you think?”

His dad let out a dry laugh.

“Am I even allowed to have an opinion on that right now?”

“No,” Casper admitted. “So… What do you think?”

“Honestly?” Ray shook his head. “It scares the shit out of me.”

Previous Chapter:

Care: 6.3

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Two days ago, Twenty Three:


For the first few seconds, the three of them simply hung there in the void; falling, yet stationary; their minds forced open to the vastness of the world. It was hard to measure time like that. Hours? Days? The space of a breath? Hard to say.

She was vaguely aware of her companions moving through the space beside her, the boss still crackling with electricity, the boy simply frightened. Had she been less distracted in that moment by the sheer length and breadth of the world, she might have comprehended earlier. As it was, she took her time.

When she finally landed, the world took a while to reconstruct. They hit the ground in the dark, she lost her footing; scuffed her knees on the rough concrete. The air was freezing, the ground so cold it threatened to take the skin from her palms when she pulled her hands away. When the nausea hit, she retched. She wasn’t the only one. The sound of someone losing fluids in the gloom.

She closed her eyes. Sight was overwhelming for her then, even in the dark.

Teleporting sucked.

It was with that thought that Twenty Three’s consciousness resurfaced. Teleporting. Right. They’d teleported. They’d been in the van; the creatures attacking from the mists of the witch’s grove. There’d been fear and rage; the promise of freedom. As the thought came back to her, she felt some broken memory of hope. 

She shook her head; still groggy. Why was the hope just a memory? Why did it hurt to think of?

Twenty Three was glad she had her eyes closed when the lights came on, the colors growing brighter behind her eyelids. Judging by the muffled groan off to her left, the boss hadn’t been quite so lucky.

The boss. More flashes in her head. Fighting, the drain, the split-second image of Caleb’s body flung like a rag-doll across the clearing. She felt something numb settling in her chest.

They’d been so close. 

More retching to the side. Just the one voice now. Young, male; Charlie. Right. The boss had got him too.

“What the heck was that?” he asked, his voice small; his teeth chattering.

“My apologies,” came the boss’ reply, the words coming out as a pained mumble. “I had to get us out of there. Bit of a rough ride.”

Twenty Three opened her eyes. The light ached. That didn’t matter. She had one thought, something to latch onto with all her strength. 

Somewhere, bare feet away from her, the boss spoke.

“Twenty Three,” Leanne croaked. “Check on Charlie. See if he’s injured, then help me up.”

She scanned the ground around her. The world spun. The vague sense of shapes moving to her left. She forced her eyes to focus. 

Charlie sat a few feet to her left, arms curled up around his eyes as he tried to block out the light and the chill. She forced her gaze to the other shape. Leanne, on all fours, immobile. 

Twenty Three forced herself to her feet. The motion disoriented; another wave of nausea sliding against her brain. She closed her eyes, and took a step towards Leanne.

Her thoughts weren’t vocal in that moment; incoherent. All she had inside her was that crushing sense of loss. She wished the feeling could be less familiar.

She took another step, and felt her leg collide with something soft. She lowered herself to her knees beside the boss, confirming identity by touch rather than her still aching eyes.

“Charlie’s fine,” she muttered, orienting an arm under the woman’s shoulders, and exhaustedly heaving her upright, the two of them steadying one another as gravity itself seemed to ebb beneath them. “What do you want me to do?”

Leanne took a while before she answered, clearly forcing herself to think; barely conscious. 

“Get-” she shook her head. “Get inside. Find someone from medical. Send them across while I look after Charlie.”

Twenty Three forced a nod. It was mechanical; artificial; a built in response to having another layer of hope ripped out by the root. Obedience. That was how one avoided pain. It was the only way.

“… Yes, Maam.”

It was… surprisingly easy, letting her feelings go, keeping the hate out of her voice. She just had to forget she had a soul. Simple as breathing.

It just wasn’t something her sanity could stand. 

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, unclipping the knife from her belt. Maybe it should have been. Maybe she should have considered the odds for her survival. She didn’t. She was too busy playing back images inside her mind. The panic in Caleb’s eyes before the end. Twenty Four’s body growing cold against his bed. 

Leanne barely reacted when the blade pierced her gut. Just a faint surprise; a breath; the exhalation turned to mist by the chill.

Twenty Three withdrew the knife; stabbed again. Leanne’s hands came up to stop her; weaker than a child. She stabbed again.

“Everything,” Twenty Three whispered, one arm at the older woman’s back, holding her upright. “You broke every good thing there ever was in me. I can’t live like this.”

She felt Leanne’s touch inside her mind; the last dregs of power draining slowly out of her. She shook her head. Was this how Twenty Four had felt? The lifeblood leaching from his veins as he stood there in the snow? 

He must have been so lonely.

“Do it,” she murmured, forcing a smile even as the tears began to trickle along her cheeks. “Send me back to them. Please.”

Something broke inside her when the sound of Leanne’s breaths grew still. The hand inside her head stopped pulling at her. The woman’s form grew heavy in her arms.

Why was she still alive?

She shook Leanne’s body.

 “Wake up. You’re not done. I said wake up!” 

The boss’ head lolled to the side as she slapped it. No resistance. No pulse.

Twenty Three let the body fall to the floor, and put her head in her hands.

“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. Not again. Don’t make me be alone again.”

“… Hey.”

She let the knife fall from her fingers with a clatter. Her fingers shook, her breaths short and shallow.

“Fuck. Fuck.” She shook herself. Nothing changed. She slapped herself. She failed to wake up.

“Hey!” 

Something struck her in the leg, hard enough to sting. She ignored it. It hit her again.

She opened her eyes.

It was the kid.

Charlie.

He was shivering. Barefoot and pajama clad in the freezing cold. He was also kicking her in the shins.

“Will. You. Stop. Flipping. Out!” he shouted, planting a fresh kick in the space between each word. “We’ve been kidnapped! Pull it together, or we’re screwed!”

She looked down at him, confused.

“But Caleb’s dead,” she said, the words coming out strangely hollow.

Charlie glared at her, his arms wrapping tight around himself for warmth, his feet tucking into the bottoms of his pajamas so as not to touch the ground.

“Who?” he asked. “Y-you mean the guy who tried to save us? I didn’t see him die. Did you see him die?”

“He-” she swallowed. “He got hit.”

Charlie shook his head.

“No,” he chittered. “S-shut up. That’s not what I said. Did. You. See. Him. Die?”

Twenty Three opened her mouth.

Twenty Three closed her mouth.

“Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “That’s what I thought. N-now. I’m gonna be honest. I just watched you stab someone. I don’t trust you. But we’re in this together. So, are you gonna help me get back to my mom or not?”

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then she began to laugh.

“… What?” he asked, one eyebrow crawling up his scalp.

“Ah.” She giggled. “It’s just- Oh, wow. My life is just a procession of little boys who need me to keep them alive.”

“I’m not a little boy.” He muttered, hands rubbing up and down along his sides in an attempt to ward off the cold.

“You’re totally a little boy.” Twenty Three opened a hand, allowing a mote of indigo flame to blossom between her fingers, before lobbing it down on the ground between them. It wasn’t much; little more than a space heater, really, but Charlie huddled himself around it like it was the warmest thing on Earth.

“Where the heck are we?” he asked. “How’s it so cold? It’s October.”

“It’s October, sure,” she muttered, taking a good look around for the first time since her landing. “But I’m pretty sure we’re back where I grew up. Near the arctic. Up in the mountains. Up here, October just means the snow storms are back.”

The first things she noted looking around were the shipping containers. Eight of them, organized around them in a neat, two-by-two stack. She could see the distant wall down one end, a sliding entryway just big enough for a hauler on the other side. All of it covered over by a low tin roof. 

They were back at the compound. 

She chuckled. For the last twelve years, being back here had been a feature of every nightmare she’d had. Strange that it could now be a cause for such relief. She’d been trying to break out of here for years. She knew the security of the place like the back of her hand.

“Well,” she muttered. First question. How about your portals? Think you could put us back in America somewhere?”

“Already tried it while you were freaking out,” he replied. “I don’t think I can make them go that far. The only one I managed opened up into a snow storm. Now they won’t open up at all. I think I’m out of power.”

“Right,” she sighed. “Well, that makes things harder.” She glanced across at Charlie, still warming himself by the meagre fire, and stripped off her jacket. She tossed it at him. “In a perfect world, we could just hide here until you got your power back.” She heaved another sigh. “But, the lights are on. And that means they’ll come looking in here soon. This warehouse isn’t big enough to hide in, and if we tried, it’d mean going without the fire. At best, we’d be caught. At worst, we’d freeze.”

Charlie wrapped the jacket around him as tightly as he could, burrowing in against the leather lining. 

“But I like the fire,” he muttered.

“Me too,” she replied, slumping down on the floor across from him. “Don’t wanna have to go without it. But there’s no hiding here with it. Now, we could make a run for it, but we’re up in the mountains, and it’s cold outside. It’s only going to get colder when nighttime hits. You’re not wearing shoes. Or any warm clothes. We could steal hers-” she pointed at Leanne’s corpse. 

“-but they won’t fit, and they aren’t enough. I have no idea how far away it is to the nearest town. Hell, I don’t even know where the nearest town is. There’s a ski resort, I think, on one of the mountains nearby, but as far as I could ever tell, that mountain is at least twelve miles away. So, to get us there, I’d have to carry you through the snow, in broad daylight, for about two hours. Best case, we get there and you only lose a few toes to the cold. Worst case, we get caught, and you still lose a couple toes. We could wait until nighttime in some of the trees on the other side of the compound, but that’d mean staying in the cold even longer. And we still might get caught.”

Charlie shook his head, his expression slightly queasy.

“Okay,” he muttered. “Thanks for the horror story, weirdo. Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because,” she groaned. “I want you to know your options. We could run, and we could maybe make it. But there’s a risk. And because you’re smaller, and your body doesn’t have superpowers, most of that risk is on you. But. The other option might be worse.”

Of all the possible responses, the boy somehow managed a chuckle.

“Worse than losing my toes?” he asked, poking his bare feet out from under the wrapping of the jacket, and wiggling them around near the fire. “Not likely. I like my toes.”

Twenty Three shook her head.

“Option two is you turn yourself in,” she muttered. His head jerked up at her at that. She held up a hand. “I know. I know. It sounds dumb. But these people wanted us to capture you. That means someone here is going to know your face. If you turn yourself in, they’ll keep you warm, and keep you safe. If you told them the boss got stabbed before she brought you here, they wouldn’t need to know about me. And that gives me enough time to get supplies, come back, and break you out.”

“… You really think you can just break me out of here?”

There was a lot more cynicism in Charlie’s voice than Twenty Three would have liked. She brushed it off with a grin.

“Kid. I spent my whole childhood figuring out how to break people out of here. Most of that was before I learned magic.”

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Bonus Chapter: Small Worlds.

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Bonus chapter: Small Worlds.


Eleven years ago:

Asset Eighteen awoke with a groan to the sound of his phone going off.

For a second, he just lay there in bed, eyes closed, trying to pretend he was still asleep. There wasn’t a reason to get up. None at all. Who sent texts at Two in the morning? The bosses didn’t matter. Seventeen could wait.

He let himself pretend that for a solid twenty seconds, before pulling his body upright. He rubbed bleariness from his eyes, propped his butt against his pillow, and checked his phone.

The message was from Seventeen.

It was only one word long:

‘Help.’


The residents of New Jersey were clearly quite surprised to see the twelve year old sprinting barefoot down the street, a line of scavenged linen fluttering in the wind behind him. He heard some of them call out to him; dodged between the ones who tried to stop him. He didn’t care about them. He just clutched the jumbled fabric a little tighter and sprinted for all he was worth.

He reached the block containing his partner’s cage in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother with the stairs. If this was what he thought it was, Seventeen wouldn’t be in a state to open the door. Instead, he climbed the fire escape, vaulting up the ladder and taking the steps three or four at a time. He reached her window, loosened the latch with a muttered spell, yanked it open, and climbed inside.

He found Seventeen curled up in the corner of the room, her pillow wrapped tight around her head. There was vomit on the floor. She was shaking.

She knew he was there. Of course she knew. That was the problem in a nutshell. She was his counterpart, bred for enhanced senses just as he was for physicality. Even with that pillow around her head, she could tell him exactly where he was.

And where everyone else in the building was. And the location of every dumpster. And what they all held.

“Help me,” she whispered, her arms squeezing the pillow convulsively around her ears. “The world’s too big. Help.”

To Eighteen’s credit, he did not hesitate. He strode across the room, casually ignoring the vomit on the floor, and picked her up.

She clung to him.

He carried her to her bed, deposited her gently on the sheets, and wrapped them around her like a burrito. Her whimpers softened, just a little. He repeated the action with the linen from his own cage, burying her under seven or so layers of bundled fabric. She sniffled.

He nodded, satisfied. The treatment was starting to take effect. Good. He picked his friend-burrito up, carried her through to her tiny bathroom, and dumped her in the shower, before returning to the main room. Then, he closed the window, and started searching the place for more material. Her curtains were terrible. Cheap plastic things that crinkled as they moved. Perfect.

He pulled them down, bundling them up in his arms along with a towel and assorted shirts. From there, he returned to the bathroom, unfolded the plastic curtains, and draped them over Seventeen’s head, followed in short order by the fabrics. Okay. That was the main structure in place. Now he just had to finish it up.

He closed the door into the main room, and turned off the light.

Great. He was now completely blind.

“Hey,” he murmured, quiet as he could. “Seventeen. You know who’s a huge dummy and can’t see in the dark?”

From the rough direction of the shower, there was a snuffly kind of laugh.

“O-one step forwards,” she mumbled.

Eighteen allowed himself a small smile, closed his eyes, and stepped blindly forwards.

“Two steps left.”

Eighteen obeyed.

“Turn around a little bit.”

He turned. She giggled.

“The other way, doofus.”

“I knew that,” he muttered, turning the other way.

“Sure you did. One step forward, then one step right.”

He stepped.

“You found me.”

“I found you,” he echoed, reaching down and patting the rough area where he assumed her head to be. He was pretty sure he got it. “Good work, ground control. Engaging operation domino fortress. Ready to proceed?”

A wet snicker.

“Roger, Alpha One.”

He spent a few awkward seconds fumbling in the dark for the shower handle, before turning on the water, and soaking the both of them with a lukewarm spray. He gave it just enough time for the water to run warm, then turned it back off. he got down on his hands and knees, lifted the edge of the fabric draped over Seventeen’s head, and climbed in under it with her.

It was disconcerting to him. Under the curtain, muffled by layers of liquid sodden cloth, he couldn’t hear a damn thing besides her breathing.

That was the point. Put the rest of the world as far away as possible.

He reached out, took his friend-burrito by the shoulders, and propped her up between his knees for a hug. Now he had only one job left. Listen to her breathing, and keep her calm.

She nuzzled her face against his shoulder. He pretended not to notice the moisture in her eyes.

“It’s still so loud,” she sniffed. “It’s everywhere.”

“No it’s not,” he muttered. “It’s far away from us. The world’s just you and me right now.” He pulled her in a little tighter, his hand rubbing gently at her back.

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Eighteen kept her snuggled there until her breathing evened out. He wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep. He nodded off himself not long after.


Two Days Ago:

Eighteen sat in the visitor’s chair, gazing down at his hands. He’d taken days drumming up the courage to come here. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say. Instead, he just sat there, glaring at the plastic cuff wrapped around his wrist.

A tracking device. The irony was painful.

He shot a look at his minder by the door. The man raised an eyebrow. Eighteen scowled at him. The minder just shrugged.

He took a breath.

‘Just get it over with.’

He looked at Thirteen. The kid looked back, right in his eyes. He looked away.

The sound of fingers snapping together. His head jerked up. It was Seventeen. She was still standing exactly where she had been for the last half hour, out in the hallway, back against the wall by the open door as her eyes scanned mechanically back and forth across her field of view. She didn’t look at him.

She did speak, though, in a fashion. The tiniest jerk of her head towards the hospital bed. That was about as vocal as she ever got in public.

He sighed.

“Yeah. I know.”

Another tiny movement of her head towards the bed. There was no arguing with her sometimes.

“I was a dick,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked the wounded boy in the eye. Thirteen’s gaze was cold. Eighteen kept going. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back, no matter what, I’ll do it. I promise.”

Thirteen’s expression remained unchanged. Eighteen returned his gaze to the floor.

When a response finally came, it was barely louder than a croak. Hardly surprising. The kid’s throat was just as torn up as the rest of him.

“You’re not worth it,” he said. “Not worth her. Neither of you are.”

Eighteen took the words on the chest as best he could.

“Fuck you,” he murmured. “We’re worth plenty.”

Thirteen let out a noise that began as a laugh, but finished as more of a pained groan.

“She’s broken and you’re an asshole,” he replied. “Twenty Three’s worth more than both of you.”

Eighteen closed his eyes and took a breath. He had promised himself that no matter what Thirteen said, he’d take it. He deserved everything the kid could dish out and more. He forced himself to give the guy a chance.

“She’s not broken,” he said quietly. “Take it back.”

“Prove me wrong,” Thirteen replied, glaring at him.

Eighteen opened his mouth to reply, not entirely sure of what he was even going to say, when a knocking from the corridor stopped him short. The two of them looked around. Eighteen grinned.

Seventeen had her arm stuck through the doorway. She was giving Thirteen the finger.

“So,” he asked. “You want that in writing?”


Seventeen years ago:

The first strike caught him in the mouth. Hard, blunt; a lightning line of pain cracking through his teeth. He tasted blood.

It sent him reeling, blind, thumping against the bed. He let out a noise; not quite anger, not quite fear, and raised a hand in an attempt to pull the bag away from his eyes.

That earned him a blow across the hand, something solid colliding with his thumb. He felt the bone split, and was unable to hold back the quiet whine of pain that escaped his desire for defiance. He hunched over, half-cradling his broken hand, then felt the butt of something jab against his abdomen, driving all the air from his lungs in a single, violent heave.

He lost some of the contents of his stomach, too. The lip of the bag kept them stuck around his neck.

He spent the next half second trying to simultaneously breathe and retch, before another strike impacted like a hammer blow against his shoulder.

He let the force of it push him off his knees; allowed his body to hit the floor, taking the landing on his one uninjured shoulder, and using the movement to roll himself to his feet.

He was used to pain. Used to discomfort. They’d been drilling him for this since the day he was born.

He closed his eyes. No use to him with the bag in the way. He relied on sound. His assailant moved loudly; breathed heavy. Big. Male.

He dodged the next swing by pure, blind instinct, ducking under a swing probably meant to ring his skull like a bell, and surged forwards, head first, bringing his forehead into his attacker’s crotch as hard as he could.

The man yelled.

Eighteen grinned.

Then the man’s knee made him swallow one of his teeth.

‘Worth it.’

That was the last thought he had for a while. A pair of hands clapped against his ears; made stars jump around inside his brain.

It was a relief, in a way; made him less able to register the pain of every hit. After a minute or so, he was left laying there, just quietly wondering why.

Were they going to kill him?

Had he disobeyed?

When the world finally began to swim back into focus, the first things he noticed were the shrieks. Inarticulate, horrified.

He knew that voice.

Another strike. His gut this time. Then a voice he lacked the capacity to recognize called them off.

“Enough. She’s manifested. It’s done.”

For a moment, he simply lay there, his mind a loose associative mess of pain and tired confusion. Then, they pulled the vomit and blood soaked bag off his head, and he saw something that turned the world cold.

‘Seventeen.’

She had tear marks streaking down her cheeks. They’d strapped her to a chair.

“Why?” he croaked, for all the world, just bitter. “Why’d you make her watch?”

They ignored him.

“Right,” muttered the same voice as before. “Hold him down. Let’s get this over with.”

He didn’t resist the hands as they took hold of his wrists. He was too tired. Too sore. Defiance was only worth so much.

His perspective changed when the first fist caught Seventeen about the cheek, knocking her chair sideways to the floor. Then, his very blood caught fire.

He didn’t know how long it went on. Just that he fought them with all his might for every single second of it. Every blow. Every drop of her blood across the floor.

He felt something breaking loose inside his brain.


Night:

He awoke in rage.

Hands at his shoulders. Weight against his chest. Still holding him down.

‘No.’

He struck blind. Too dark to see. Couldn’t think.

The flaring of a shield in the gloom; a ringing pain in his wrist. He let out a wordless curse, grabbed his attacker by the middle, and wrenched her off of him. Shield or no, there was no competing with his strength. He grappled; pinned her down; glared down at the figure in the dark, his heart racing, his mind scarlet.

“Let her go,” he said. It was all he had the space in his head to say. He closed his grip around her wrists, and squeezed. The shield flickered; a momentary light casting focus on his adversary’s skin.

He let Seventeen go; pulled himself backwards across his bed, ashamed.

He spent the next few minutes glaring at his feet, something painful jammed inside his throat.

It had been a long time since he’d had that nightmare.

“I-” he tried, his voice catching somewhere along the line. “I’m sorry. I’m-”

“Shh,” she murmured, the mattress shifting slightly as she slid herself across it. “Stop being a dummy.”

There was some part of him that wasn’t quite able to stop the smile at that.

“… Ok.”

He felt her head come to rest gently against his shoulder.

“Good.”

They sat together like that for a long while; just quiet; the both of them listening as his heart began to slow.

He felt her lips brush against his cheek.

“You gonna say the words?” she asked, just above a whisper.

“No,” he complained, his smile growing a fraction wider. “They feel stupid now.”

She shrugged.

“Well, I still want to hear them.”

He sighed. There was no arguing with her.

“It’s far away from us,” he recited, the warmth spreading slowly through his tired brain. “The world’s just you and me right now.”

“You promise?”

He chuckled as he felt her lips once more trace their way across his jaw.

“I promise.”

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Care: 6.2

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James:

For the first few hours, James simply seethed. This kind of anger was a new experience for him; unfamiliar; a rage borne not only from indignation, but care. It caught him off guard; unprepared.

It started small; inconsequential, really, just a note of frustration buried under a heaping mound of concern; the little voice inside his mind asking why Casper couldn’t have just told him. Then, when Father had gone, and James had been provided reassurance that his friend was still okay, that fear had slowly but surely began to drain away. Some of it, most of it, even, had just drained cleanly out through his feet, disturbing nothing as it passed, and leaving only a faint exhaustion in its wake. Some of his concern, however, had stuck around, and as he watched his friend’s ever more overt displays of frustration, those feelings had started finding different ways to flow.

It was when they were finally allowed in to see his grandpa that James realised he had to punch something.

Preferably something with a picture of Casper’s face on the front.

‘How could he be so. Freaking. Dumb?’

For his part, Casper had ignored it, avoiding James’ gaze just as he avoided everyone else. If anything, that just made the anger worse.

When they got home, there was no talk of going to school. School stopped being a thing during emergencies, apparently. The morning was spent with the three of them clustered together on the couch; watching a perpetual parade of Disney movies under his mother’s sporadic supervision; observing out of the corners of their eyes as a stream of sombre adults came in and out of the house, clad in suits and casual clothes alike, arguing quietly in the background. In that environment, even Bex somehow managed to be terse.

Some of the adults were more notable than the rest. A teacher from school, worry drawn in bold across her face, some folks from Peter’s office; even Charlie’s mom, looking more ragged and unkempt than James had ever seen her; a pair of deep shadows set beneath her eyes. He gave her a hug.

No one commented when Casper’s dad arrived. Peter went to meet him on the street, still not willing to let him in the house. James watched out of the corner of his eye as the men talked; Ray’s sporadic glances through the window at his son going from sad to mortified. Casper kept his eyes fixed on the TV, his eyes a little glassy. James tried to let his anger go at that. He did not succeed.

It was perhaps an hour or so after that when James decided he was done. He just couldn’t keep it all inside him any more.

He waited just long enough for Sarah to step back in, seating herself within cuddling range of Bex, before he spoke, his voice quiet.

“We can have this fight here, or we can do it in my room. Your call.”

Both Bex and Sarah turned their gaze to him at that, his sister confused, his mother carefully neutral. Casper didn’t move.

‘…Fine. We’ll do it here.’

James opened his mouth to speak. Before he got the first word out, however, Casper pushed himself off the couch, muttering something that could have been a curse, before stepping out towards the hall.

“C’mon,” he muttered. “Let’s just get it over with.”

The two of them moved through to James’ room in silence, neither of them wanting to be heard. When they eventually arrived, James found himself sitting on his bed, his hands balling into fists between his legs. For a while, Casper paced, moving from place to place around the room in search of somewhere comfortable, before coming to rest against the door, glaring at the floor beneath his feet.

“Well?” the older boy asked, his voice almost venomous. “Let’s hear it. Go ahead. Let yourself feel all smart by telling me I’m wrong.”

James looked across at him. In themselves, those words stung more than he thought they would. They felt wrong, coming from Casper’s mouth.

He didn’t reply. He tried to, but he couldn’t work out how. He wanted to yell. He wanted to cry. When he didn’t speak, Casper simply glared at him.

Minutes passed like that. Maybe longer. What the heck was he supposed to say?

In the end, it wasn’t finally reaching a decision that spurred James to speech; it was Casper letting out a little growl, and grabbing for the door handle.

It was just as he pulled the door open that James spoke, his voice quiet.

“I think… I think I’m gay.”

Casper stopped moving halfway out the door. Then, he swore quietly to himself, and stepped back inside the room. He closed the door behind him, then slumped to the floor on his rear.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I know.”

James sniffed. “It’s terrifying.”

“Why?”

“Cuz every time I think about a boy I like-” he swallowed. It did nothing at all to rid him of the lump inside his throat. “It… It makes me remember the stuff that happened. It makes me think about how scared I was. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“… Yeah.”

What came next was the hardest sentence James had ever had to say. “I-… There’s this little bit of me that thinks… Maybe if he never touched me; maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. Maybe we’d be talking about girls right now.”

Casper shot him a scowl. There was less anger to it, now. Just a little.

“You know that’s not how it works, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” James wiped his nose with a sleeve. “I still think it sometimes, though.”

For a while, the two of them were quiet. When Casper spoke, his tone was far softer.

“I’m sorry I pushed you about that,” he said. “I really am.”

“Yeah, sure,” James replied. “It’s done now, anyways.” He took a breath, then gave his friend a cold look. “So, what the heck is going on with you and Father?”

At that, Casper just groaned.

“I don’t even know,” he muttered. “I think he’s trying to seduce me? I don’t think he’s had many people say no to him before.”

“But why are you letting him try?”

Casper shrugged.

“Like I said to your grandma. He’s almost good, you know? He wants to help. I think he really thinks he is helping… I dunno. I just wanna find out how he got so broken.”

James shook his head.

“Why do you care?”

Casper sighed.

“Cuz I want him to be better.”

James cocked his head at that. Something in the phrasing felt odd.

“You don’t… You don’t like him, do you?” Casper didn’t respond, his cheeks flushing slightly. James shuddered. “Cas, that’s just wrong.”

“It’s not like what you’re thinking,” Casper replied. “He-… When he used his mind control thing… It made him look… pretty. Like, really, really pretty. That never really went away. And it’s… I dunno. It’s weird, when you can feel that someone likes you, you know? It’s like…” he looked across at James’ face, and must have registered the disgust written plain as day across it, because he raised a hand in a weird, semi-placating gesture. “Look, I was never gonna act on it, okay? I’m not stupid. I’m never gonna let him get that close, and I’m not gonna give him that chance to take over. I don’t trust him. I’m never gonna trust him.”

James didn’t know what to say to that. It made him want to throw up. For a while, he simply stared.

“If I asked you,” he said eventually, his voice almost pleading. “As your friend, to break it off… Would you do it?”

Casper’s gaze shifted to the floor.

“… Yeah, probably.” James opened his mouth at that, but the other boy forestalled him. “Look, I know this sounds wrong, and I get that you’re worried, but-”

“Really, Cas? Cuz it sounds like a total creeper’s trying to make you like him, and it sounds like it’s working. You can’t make that not sound wrong!”

Once again, Casper groaned.

“What would it take to make you be okay with this?”

“I’d be okay with it if you told Father you never wanted to see him again.” James thought about it for a moment. “And then he moved to Seattle. And stopped existing.”

He wasn’t quite sure why the words made Casper laugh.

“Look,” he said. “You’re right. I could break it off. Maybe I even should. But I don’t want to, and even if I did, I don’t think it’d make him stop. You haven’t seen inside his head. He’s pretty determined.”

“… You know that doesn’t make it any better, right?” James asked. “I mean, I get it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t make it okay. I think we’re messing with stuff way, way bigger than we are.”

Casper snorted.

“It’s hard not to when the big stuff follows you home.”

James snickered.

“I know, right?” He slumped backwards at that, letting his body flop down across his mattress and gazing at the ceiling. “… You know what the biggest thing I learned today is?”

“No idea,” said Casper. “What?”

“That I don’t really know you anymore, do I?” He looked down just in time to see the older boy shrug.

“Sure you do. I’m the same me I always was.”

James rolled his eyes.

“Okay, sure. But, like, I don’t know what you can do now, do I? I mean, when I said you couldn’t help at the hospital, I meant it. But then off you went and you-” he made a grappling gesture in the air with his hands. “-You helped, you know? I had no idea you could do that.”

“Dude,” Casper chuckled. “I know you didn’t mean it that way, but ouch.”

James ignored him.

“My point is, I didn’t know you could help me cuz of secrets. So, maybe secrets suck. And maybe, if we get rid of them, we can help each other more.”

The silence that followed lasted a long while. When Casper finally responded, he did so with a sigh.

“So that’s the deal, huh?” he asked. “No more secrets? You’re gonna tell me your side too?”

James nodded.

“Yeah. That’s the deal.”

“You promise not to freak out?”

“Only if you promise too.”

A snort.

“Yeah,” said Casper. “I promise.”

The older boy closed his eyes. After a second or two, so did James, relaxing back against his bed.

“… So,” he murmured. “Who goes first?”


Father:

Father looked up at the side of the building, and for the second time that night, pulled out his phone to check the address.

‘They’re making it hard to come and see you. Can we meet up tonight?’

He scrolled past the first of Casper’s messages, and onto the time and place. He frowned.

Well, it was certainly the right location. But why in the name of all had Casper wanted to meet him here? And at one AM, no less. He shook his head. Perhaps it was some effort to keep the boy’s caretakers off his tail. He supposed he’d soon find out. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and stepped inside.

The place was positively derelict; dry rot and summer baked mildew stains crawling across cracked concrete walls, the floor covered in layers of detritus left behind by generations of either vagrants, or teenagers using the place as a hideaway. Father cast a cursory glance over the lower floor; empty, but for a rusted through freight elevator, and a set of industrial steps leading to the second level. No one in sight.

“Casper,” he called, letting the door slide to a close behind him and stepping towards the stairs. “You around? I know I’m a bit early.”

It was around when he caught sight of the steel production table that currently sat wedged above the staircase, the heavy metal handrails warping into a glove around it, that he received a reply.

“He’s not here,” called a voice; young, male, unfamiliar. “Come on up. I wanted to talk to you alone.”

Father raised an eyebrow at that. Strangeness upon strangeness. He paused at the foot of the stairs, and tapped his foot lightly on the floor. The spell that followed was something like a pulse; a wave of perception that pushed itself first across the floor, then out into the superstructure like a sonar burst. A second later, he had the rough layout of the place.

The floor above was open-plan; nothing but work stations from side to side of the complex, barring a small cluster of rooms to one corner that had once been either offices or storerooms. One of those rooms held life; the pulse flowing up through a pack of what felt like rodents. On the roof above, he could feel something human sized. He raised an eyebrow at that. It was odd. The voice had come from the factory floor, yet his spell said the area was empty. Was the person on the roof projecting themselves?

He took a moment to ready a barrier, then proceeded up the stairs. He found the answer to his confusion soon enough.

‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Not projecting. Flying. No surfaces for the spell to move through.’

The speaker was a boy; a familiar one, too, shaggy black curls framing an almond shaped face, his skin tone a touch more olive than the standard post-european hue. A petite frame and slender build not at all concealed by an oversized hoodie and baggy pajama pants. Eleven or twelve, at most.

‘Cute.’

Out loud, Father simply said:

“I know you. James, right? The new Toranaga boy.”

For a moment, the boy didn’t respond, simply gazing at him, arms crossed, his face caught in an expression that wasn’t quite hostile enough to be a glare, but that Father still wished could be a little closer to a smile. The boy must look so pretty when he smiled.

“Yeah,” James said eventually. “That’s right.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” As he spoke, he resumed his climbing of the stairs, reaching the top, and beginning to cross the distance between them. He only got a step or two before the boy raised a hand, palm out.

“Wait,” he called. “I want you to promise you won’t use that happy stuff on me. Casper said you wouldn’t do it if you promised.”

Father frowned at that, his confusion touched by a momentary note of annoyance, but he nodded.

“No need to worry yourself about that. I happen to know your family would hunt me to the ends of the earth if I tried to use my light on you. Not that it would harm you if I did. Nonetheless, I won’t use it. I promise.”

He waited a moment for James to respond. When none was forthcoming, he took a tentative step forward. The boy raised no objection, so he walked to a space some twelve or so feet from the boy, and seated himself at a work-station. As he moved, he noted the old traceries on the floor, the faint sour tang hanging in the air. The site of a ritual? Yet another set of questions to be added to the pile.

He took a second to get comfortable on his makeshift seat, and shot the boy a smile.

“Well, you’ve certainly piqued my interest,” he said, his tone light. “Not everyday I find myself in a ritual site in the middle of Manhattan with a flying boy inside and someone hiding on the roof.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the ceiling high above. “That’s a fascinating power you have there, by the way.”

Again, for a while, James seemed content to simply gaze at him, arms folded, eyebrows drawing together in an oh so kissable scowl. Had Father expected him to be surprised, he would have been disappointed. Eventually, he spoke.

“I wanted to talk to you about Casper.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you won’t do anything to hurt him.”

‘Oh,’ Father realized, a grin spreading unbidden across his lips. ‘My word. He came here to protect his friend. That is so very sweet.’

“Nothing of the sort,” he murmured, raising a hand as if to wave the idea away. “I promise you. Hurting Casper is the last thing I would want.” On a spur of idle curiosity, he gestured towards the boy’s still levitating form. “So, that power of yours. Have you had the opportunity to develop it? I can’t imagine you’ve had it long.”

Another hesitation, James apparently deciding whether or not to reply, before giving him a resigned shrug.

“About a month,” he admitted. “Started training a couple weeks ago. So what is your plan for Casper?”

Father chuckled.

“Do I need one? He’s a nice boy. A talented mage. Can’t I just enjoy his company?”

“It’s more than just hanging out if you have to bribe him with a house. Is it cuz you can’t control him?”

Father sighed, trying as best as he could to push his disappointment aside. He had hoped that this younger Toranaga might not be as judgemental as the rest.

“My light doesn’t control people, James,” he replied, his tone deliberately even. “Happiness isn’t that overwhelming of a thing.” He paused to allow space for a reply. None was forthcoming, so he continued. “But, yes. I will admit, Casper’s reaction worries me. I don’t enjoy the idea that my light could cause a person pain. I want to find out why.”

“Okay,” James muttered. “Well… What if I told you. Would you promise to leave him alone?”

Father raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you know?”

For a moment, the boy’s scowl grew very dark.

“… Yes.”

“Then tell me.”

Before Father had even finished, James was shaking his head.

“No,” he replied. “First, you promise not to talk to him again.”

Now it was Father’s turn to scowl.

“Why should I?” he asked. “I’m not going to cause him any harm. I’ve never been anything but kind.”

“He told me about you kissing him,” the boy snapped. “I saw his phone. I know you asked for pictures! I know you wanna-” for a moment, it seemed like James might gag. Father waited for him to finish. He did not. He simply glared.

“I want to what?” Father replied eventually, his irritation having built itself to a peak. Why did they always have to judge without bothering to understand? “To fuck him? Yes. Yes I do. And if that’s what he wants too, then what’s so wrong with it?”

Whatever James had intended as his response, it seemed he couldn’t get it out. Father wasn’t sure he’d ever seen rage like that on someone so young. He opened his mouth, attempted to speak, but all that came out was a sickened sort of croak. Two more attempts; still nothing. Eventually, the boy raised a shaking hand to his face.

At first, Father thought he was scratching himself, a momentary concern flitting through his mind as he watched the fingers dig. Then, James’ nails found what they were looking for. He peeled the covering loose, the marks of purity and pain on full display.

“That’s what’s wrong with it,” he muttered. “Asshole.”

It was at that moment when Father’s anger failed. How could he blame the boy for judging him after that? James had no way of knowing any better.

“Oh, little one,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how scared you must ha-”

“Shut up,” James spat. “All I want to hear from you is that you’ll stay away from Casper.”

Father sighed.

“James,” he murmured. “You need to understand. I don’t want to hurt him the way that they hurt you. I don’t want anything if he doesn’t want it too. I would rather die than do that to him. To anyone. But I cannot promise not to speak to him again. All I can promise is that it isn’t what you think.”

While he had been speaking, James had simply watched him, a cold kind of anger burning in his eyes. When he was done, the boy let out a huff.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You really are broken, aren’t you.” Father took the insult on the cheek. He couldn’t bring himself to blame him. Eventually, however, James spoke again. “… There’s no way for me to beat you, is there?” he asked, trying to mask a sniffle. “You’re too much stronger than me, right?”

Father shook his head, his heart heavy.

“It makes me sad that you would want to,” he replied. “But no. There’s nothing. You don’t have nearly the experience to fight a man like me.”

James wiped his nose with a sleeve.

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I figured.” The silence that followed that was a unique kind of awkward, broken only when the boy continued: “That’s why I’ve been charging this one up.”

It may not have often looked it, but Father was a very agile man. Hundreds of years of practical combat experience, combined with physical training, and a natural reaction speed had rendered him about as fast as an unempowered human was capable of being. He dodged the boy’s opening strike with ease.

Dodging, however, was a response best suited to fists. James’ volley was closer to a freight train.

For the first half-second or so, Father was physically blinded; his shield splitting into so many fragmented shards of light that his vision was nought but bloom.

What that meant, unfortunately, was that Father lacked the context to recognize his body striking the far wall; the gust sending him through concrete, brick and steel like a bullet shot through plaster board.

What he did register, however, was the sound of a second wall crumbling underneath him. He struck the ground, bounced, and collided with something new.

When the stars finally stopped snapping before his eyes, Father became aware of the inside of a shed, the hull of a construction vehicle now wrapped around his shoulders, and the taste of blood inside his mouth.

A little groggy, he turned his face to look at the hole in the wall through which he’d come. He could see the sky now, along with the figure standing on the roof of the building from which he’d been thrown, cast in silhouette against the stars. He watched, slowly trying to pull his thoughts together, as the figure stepped from the rooftop, and dropped to ground level, landing on her feet with a thud, before making her way towards him in a sprint. He had just enough time to register a teenage girl with a baseball bat, before he found his body being wrenched from the chassis of the vehicle, and carried back outside. He felt the handle of something metal underneath his chin.

From his new perspective, he had an unimpeded view as the youngest mage of the Toranaga bloodline floated into view through the hole in the factory wall.

Even if Father had still had his senses at that moment, he wouldn’t have dared to fight. There was something about the way James hung there, the power seeping from his eyes like a mist of glowing tourmaline, that made him seem almost otherworldly.

“Father,” the elementalist called down. “I want you to listen to me really, really carefully. If you ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

“Also,” said the girl currently holding him aloft. “Just so you know. I was totally filming that.”


Author’s Note: I’m going to be honest. I am not 100% sure about this chapter. I worry that I might be presenting my subject matter in a somehow flawed manner, which I really do not want to do, particularly with issues of such real-world gravity. I hope that it’s just nerves, but if you can see what you think to be a flaw, please let me know.

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Care: 6.1

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys! Finally, we get to embark on arc six. This is one I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time. Now that we are here, it is once again time for the next Bonus Chapter vote. I’m trying something a little new this time. Instead of letting people vote on literally every character that has appeared in story thus far, I have selected several potential options for bonus chapters for y’all to choose from. The link can be found here, or you can just click on the Bonus Chapter Votes tab in the site menu. Until next time, guys.

Casper:

To call the silence that surrounded Casper awkward would have been the understatement of the month. Even the receptionist was staring; Tsuru was doing so with an intensity that bordered on hostility. For his part, Casper picked up his strawberry milk and drained it dry, before stepping up out of his uncomfortable excuse for a chair, and crossing the room to throw the empty carton in the bin.

He returned to his chair. Everyone was still staring.

“So,” Tsuru asked, her tone one of barely suppressed anger. “Has he fucked you yet?”

He leaned back against the seat cushion, and looked her in the eye.

“It’s not like that.”

“It’s Father,” Peter replied, managing his voice at least somewhat better than his mother. “It’s always like that. Do you honestly expect me to believe he hasn’t tried-”

“Oh, he tried,” Casper admitted. “I said no.”

“Bullshit,” replied Peter and Tsuru in unison. The two of them looked at one another. Peter gestured for his mother to proceed.

“You don’t say no to Father,” she growled. “No one says no to Father. Especially not an untrained, adolescent boy.”

“I’m not untrained,” he replied coldly. In any other mindset, the look she gave him then would have terrified him. He looked around. He still didn’t like the idea of telling them about his power, but how else to show them? He spotted a flowerpot by the reception desk, and stood, crossing the room towards it. “Plastic. Darn. I don’t suppose anyone has some flower seeds?”

He had intended it as a joke. A lame one, in retrospect. What he had not expected was for both Peter and Tsuru to begin digging in their pockets.

“Come here,” Peter muttered, pulling out his wallet and unzipping a small compartment on the side. Casper stepped towards him, and the older man shook a small selection of seeds into his palm.

“Thanks.”

With that, he returned to his seat, looked around for something suitably disposable, and settled on his half-eaten pastry. He picked it up, stuffed one of the smaller seeds into the casing, and focused on his spell.

Three weeks ago, this power had been almost inaccessible, like doing deadlifts with his brain. In those three weeks, however, he’d had the time to practice. 

For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the pastry’s exterior began to tear, exuding at first just a single flower blossom, then significantly more. Roots, leaves, stems. Casper kept going until the thing was a half foot wide, roots and creepers trailing around his hand and halfway up his arm. He could have pushed it further, but they got the point.

He peeled his hand free of the flower’s stems, and lobbed it lightly across at Tsuru. She caught it, examined it for a moment, then passed it to her son.

“Fine,” she murmured, apparently making a little more effort at maintaining some form of calm. “So you’re not a total novice. I still don’t think for a second that you could say no to a man like Father. I know trained combat mages who couldn’t manage that.”

“She has a point, you know,” Peter agreed, pressing a finger to one of the flower blossoms, only for it to begin shrinking in his hand, returning itself to a seed. “I don’t care if you can use your spells or not. Father has mind co-”

“Mind Control,” Casper cut him off. “Yeah. He does. It doesn’t work on me.”

“Doesn’t work on you?” Tsuru laughed, her voice sounding almost sickened. “Is that what he made you think? Casper. It’s magic. There’s no such thing as being immune.”

“I’m not immune,” he replied. “It just doesn’t work on me.”

At that, it was Peter’s turn to groan. 

“God, don’t you realize how inane that sounds?” he asked, his voice growing steadily louder, before Sarah’s hand on his leg prompted him to take a breath. “Look,” he muttered. “I get it. It’s like a drug. I’m guessing he found you when things were at their worst with your dad. When your life was sitting at its very lowest point. And he made you feel good. I’ll bet from there it was just easier to tell yourself you had a choice. That it was okay. That you hadn’t really lost anything.”

For a few moments, Casper simply stared at him.

“It’s a lie, Casper,” Peter continued. “You need to get away.”

After a long, long quiet, Casper finally replied:

“You really don’t get it, do you?” The older man opened his mouth, but Casper cut him off. “Shut up. You have no idea, okay? None. You think it just makes you happy? No. It’s the best thing you’ve ever felt. Could ever feel. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been, and I never want it to happen to me again!” It was Casper’s own voice that was rising now. James was stirring by his side. He didn’t care. “You don’t know shit. That power doesn’t just make you into a junkie. That stuff makes you so damn happy that you stop being who you were. You stop being you around him. You turn into some broken kind of child so horribly in love that you’d let him stab you in the gut with a smile.” He had to stop a moment there to set the memory aside. “And if you’re like me, if you’re lucky, then there’ll be just enough of the real you left inside to scream for it to stop.”

The other three just gazed at him at that. Beside him, James shifted back to consciousness with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled blearily. “Why are people yelling?”

No one answered him. After a moment, Peter dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have-”

“No,” Casper agreed. “You shouldn’t.”

“When did it happen?” Sarah asked, something indefinable in her voice.

“… The day before I came to live with you,” he muttered. “Back when the elves attacked. I’ve seen him a couple times since then.”

“Why, though?” Tsuru asked. “If you really think he can’t control you, then why do you let him in?”

Casper laughed at that.

“Cuz number one, he’s a freaking stalker. Even after I got away from him, he just tracked me back to where I was staying. And number two… we made a deal, okay? He gets to spend a couple hours with me every week, and I get-” He stopped. Why did he have to go and say that? “… Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? We agreed to hang out a little every week as long as he kept his hands to himself.”

James was fully upright now, looking between Casper and his family with a growing degree of concern.

“The hell are you guys talking about?” the other boy asked, frowning.

“Your grandad’s gonna be fine,” Casper grunted. “I got my teacher to have a look at him.”

“Casper,” Peter asked, his tone deliberately steady. “I promise not to judge you, but what exactly did Father offer you?”

Casper tried to glare at him. It hurt a bit too much to do it right.

“… Food,” he admitted. “Money. An apartment. Somewhere to stay in case I needed to run away again.”

“Why would you need to run away again?” Sarah asked, just a little hesitant.

Casper turned his gaze to the floor.

“Cuz I still don’t trust you.” He thanked the stars that Sarah was too far away for him to feel with his powers all wrapped in. The hurt emanating from James was bad enough. After a few seconds of it, he growled. “Look. I don’t need this from any of you, okay? Whether you like what I did or not, none of you were there, and everything I did just saved the old man’s life. You don’t get to judge me.”

“No one’s judging you, Casper,” said Sarah quietly. 

“Bullshit.”

“We’re not,” Tsuru replied. “You can’t judge someone for being mind controlled. None of it’s their fault.”

“So you’re calling me a victim, then,” Casper snapped. “You think that’s not a judgement? Go ahead and tell James that. See how that works out.”

The moment Casper said it, he regretted it. Once again, the room went very still.

“Screw you, Casper,” said Peter quietly. Sarah just tapped him on the shoulder.

“Go wait outside,” she said, pointing at the door. “It’s not about us. You need to cool off.”

With a mutter of something Casper couldn’t quite catch, Peter stood. Before he’d left the room, however, James’ voice spoke up:

“I want you to apologise to my parents,” he said, his own voice perfectly clear.

A part of Casper knew he should apologise; that what he’d said was out of line. But he wasn’t without his pride.

“Was I wrong?”

“I said I want you to apologise.”

Casper scowled.

“Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Peter stiffly. “… And I’m sorry, James, if that really is how we made you feel.”

At a gesture from his wife, Peter sat back down.

“You know, I really don’t care about whether you trust us,” Tsuru muttered. “Making a deal with a child molester isn’t the best way to secure yourself an out. You want a backup? Fine. I’ll give Tasha some money. I know you’re friends. Go and live with her. You know she’d die before she kicked you out.”

Casper chuckled.

“Before she lived with you, Tasha’s place was neck deep in pizza boxes. Where do you think I was staying when I went on the run?”

“The point,” Tsuru replied. “Is that there are options. Lots of options. Better options.”

“There are,” Casper conceded. “And every single one of them comes with strings attached. At least with this one, I know where all the risks are.”

At that, Tsuru snorted.

“You know the risks. He gives you gifts. What next? Are you going to tell me you can fix him?”

“Would you shut up?” Casper asked. “I told you, it’s not like that.”

“Then why the hell are you giving him a chance?” she asked. “You know he’s dangerous. You admit he’s tried to molest you-”

“Wait, what!?” James interjected, shaking Bex momentarily from her doze. Tsuru ignored him.

“-And yet you’re still set on having him in your life. Why, Casper?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply. He closed it again. They were staring at him; James on the verge of panic. He felt small.

“… He saved my life,” he said quietly. “Back when the elves attacked. I was with some guys, but we got separated. One of them cornered me.”

“It was you,” Peter murmured in a voice of sudden realisation. “You’re the boy that Theo and Kym ran into. The one who nailed the female with a flash grenade.”

“Yeah. But afterwards, she came after me. Her birds were tearing me apart. I think she was gonna make them eat me.” Casper sniffed. “And then Father stabbed her in the gut. He saved me.”

“You don’t owe him anything,” Tsuru growled. “Take it from someone who’s just as powerful as he is, saving a kid from being cornered by a monster doesn’t make you a saint. It just makes you not as bad as you would have been if you stood there and let them die. It doesn’t cost him anything, and so you owe him nothing.”

“… Well, I don’t see it that way.”

Tsuru let out a huff.

“Of course you don’t.”

For a time, the conversation ended there. Then Casper voiced the one thought that had been nagging at him for weeks.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, though?” he asked. “Cuz you look at him there, with all those other kids, and it’s so obvious he’s trying to be good. Doesn’t it hurt you at all?”

The look that Tsuru gave him then was hard.

“There are plenty of good men in the world, Casper. But most of them don’t fuck kids.”

The silence that followed that was a good deal shorter.

“How did you know where my father was?” Peter asked. “You told him exactly where to go.”

Casper snickered.

“I think I’ve told you enough secrets for today.”

When Father finally returned to the waiting room, the atmosphere was tense. Everyone besides Casper turned to look at him, the level of disgust ranging from face to face. For his part, Father simply ignored them.

“I’ve repaired everything I can,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s far from perfect. Some of the tissue was too burned to be brought back. There will be scars. And there was some damage to the spinal cord that I lack the-” he searched for the word. “-Let’s call it the dexterity to account for. He might find his legs a little stiff from now on. Other than that, he’s healing. Give him a few days to rest, and he should find his feet.”

“Thank you,” Casper said, refusing to meet anyone else’s gaze.

“What’s the price?” Tsuru asked. “What did Casper have to promise you to make you agree to this?”

Father sighed.

“There wasn’t a price, Tsuru. I couldn’t just stand there while one of Earth’s defenders lay dying. Even were that not the case, I’m not going to extort a boy just for trying to help a friend.”

Tsuru turned to Casper, waiting for a contradiction. None was offered.

“… Thank you,” she muttered. “For saving my husband’s life.”

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