It was four thirty six in the afternoon, and Casper Sullivan was getting pissed.
He pulled his phone from his pocket, checked the screen, then lowered it back to the greasy food court table, swearing under his breath.
The man was late. Father was never late.
Bad enough I have to hang out with that rapist. Now I have to wait for him? Such an ass.
Casper took a moment, closed his eyes, and forced himself to breathe. He didn’t like being angry. He really, really didn’t. That was part of why he hated this.
At first, the thought of Father had merely scared him. This mysterious, nigh unstoppable mage who had first rescued him, then tried to make him a-
He cut that thought off before it had time to finish itself. He knew it would only disgust him further.
But the fact of it was that things had changed since then; enough that Casper was no longer scared of him. Now, Father just really pissed him off.
It was the texts that had done it, really. It was difficult to fear a man who insisted on texting you cat videos eleven times a day. For the most part, they were just perplexing; anecdotes about the older man’s day, checking to make sure he was settling in okay with James. Small stuff. He’d responded sporadically, at best.
Then the man had asked him for a nude.
He couldn’t remember ever shouting so hard at anyone in his life. It was the only time he’d ever used the phone to call him back.
At the end of it all, Father’s apology had sounded hurt.
More than anything, that was what frustrated him. The man didn’t even get what he was doing wrong.
Casper let out a tired sounding sigh, and once more raised the phone to eye level. He flicked across to Father’s number, and dialed in a text, short and simple:
‘I’m at the food court. We doing this, or what?’
The man’s response, as it happened, wasn’t long in coming. Barely a second or two after his phone had hit the table than the text alert buzzed.
‘I’m here. Head over to the arcade. I’ve set up a surprise for you.’
Casper glowered. That wasn’t what they’d agreed on.
‘I don’t like your surprises.’
He shook his head, and reluctantly pushed himself up from the table.
The trip to the arcade wasn’t a long one. Honestly, Casper almost wished it could have taken longer.
When he got there, the place was nearly empty, a dozen or so other teens moving lazily around the machines, casually enjoying their Saturday. Casper glanced around. No sign of Father anywhere. He frowned. No sign of any surprise, either.
Casper once more pulled out his phone. This time, however, he didn’t pull up Father’s number. This time, he sent a text to Mel, just to let her know where he’d gone.
His one-time magic teachers had been a godsend in these past few weeks. As the only ones who knew anything about his and Father’s agreement, they’d made every effort to intervene on his behalf. He wasn’t quite sure where he’d be without them to back him up. He just wished they were strong enough to actually do something if Father acted out.
He stowed his phone once more, and stepped inside the arcade, scanning the faces about the place for any sign of Father.
Nope. No sign of him. No sign of any adults at all, in fact, beyond a bored looking guy standing behind the prize counter. It was just the same dozen or so kids he’d spotted from outside the store, most of them moving about the place in groups of two or three. Glancing around, he caught one of the other teens gazing at him from the far side of the store; a boy about his own age, if he had to guess, reddish brown hair sitting neatly over a pale face lightly dusted by freckles. Upon catching Casper watching him, the other boy grinned, his hand raising in a wave.
Casper hesitated for a moment, then waved back, a little awkward. Did he know this boy?
For his part, though, the other kid took the wave as more than greeting enough, and stepped forwards.
Casper raised an eyebrow at that, confused, then, experimentally, expanded his power outward for a moment around the other boy.
Realization struck him at the same moment that Father reached him, that cheery grin still affixed to his far too youthful face.
“Hey there, Casper,” Father murmured. “Do you like my surprise?”
Inside the man’s mind, Casper felt a momentary pride, combined with some kind of anticipatory thrill.
“… So you’re a kid now?”
“Yeah.” Father’s smile grew a fraction wider. “Do you like it?”
Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that.
“Am I, uh… Am I supposed to like it?”
Almost immediately, Father’s face fell.
“… You don’t like it.”
Casper shook his head.
“Honestly? No, I don’t. It’s kinda creepy.”
At that, Father frowned, apparently stung.
“Cuz you’re not a kid,” Casper muttered. “You’re an adult; but you’re pretending to be a kid to, what, make an actual kid like you more? That’s a thing that creeps do.”
Father scowled, offended.
“You make me sound like some kind of predator.”
“And you’re not one?” Casper asked, barely resisting the urge to laugh. “The first time we met, you tried to have sex with me.”
“Yeah,” Father agreed. “And I backed off, didn’t I?”
“Only when your mind control failed!”
“Oh,” Father groaned, raising a palm to his forehead in almost palpable frustration. “For god’s sake, not you too. Why does everyone have to assume my light is mind control? It makes people happy! What’s wrong with that?”
“You used it to try and fuck me!” Casper retorted, only barely managing to keep his voice low enough to avoid attention. “It’s messed up! I mean, heck, you were going to kidnap m-”
“No,” Father cut him off, his voice and mind suddenly cold. “You don’t get to call it that. I saw a runaway child alone on the street, and offered him a home. You don’t get to throw it in my face like that.”
For a few moments, the two of them simply glowered at each other.
It was infuriating. How could anyone be this blind? Casper couldn’t even fathom it.
In the end, Casper only sighed.
“Look,” he muttered. “Can we just- I dunno. You’re the one who’s making me hang out with you, so can we just play some games together and pretend we’re having fun?”
Now it was Father’s turn to sigh.
“It was supposed to be actual fun. Demonize me all you like for wanting you to enjoy your time with me.” Casper opened his mouth to reply, but Father wasn’t done. “Yes, fine. Let’s just play some games already.”
Two hours. That was the deal that he and Father had struck the day he’d moved in with James’ family. Every week, for as long as Father wished, Casper had to spend a minimum of two hours in Father’s company, in exchange for Father agreeing to a few conditions of his own.
Their first Date- Casper suppressed a shudder at the word- had been less than fun. Father had taken him to dinner. That outing had been back when he was still terrified of the man. Those had been two of the most awkward hours of his life. Somehow, however, their first half hour at the arcade managed to be even worse.
There was something deeply wooden, Casper thought, about trying to pretend that you were somewhere on your own. A feeling that, try as he might to suppress it, only managed to get clunkier with time.
They started with a co-op game. Some nameless shooting game affair with oversized plastic guns affixed to the machine by loops of cord. Casper did his best to keep his focus on the game, balancing his ammunition across the selection of game-provided weapons, and doing his best to keep the two of them alive. Father, as it turned out, wasn’t anything that even approached his description of a skillful gamer. If anything, though, that helped. Every time he had to waste his seconds covering the older man’s side of the fight, it gave him a more tangible reason for frustration. He shot the man a genuine glare when a mistimed reload cost the pair of them the last of their extra lives, and felt inside Father’s mental scape as anger and frustration gave way to an embarrassed kind of hurt.
He had to force himself not to be too guilty over that. It felt like kicking a puppy. An evil, awful puppy.
From there, they moved to DDR. Father was even worse at DDR.
It was the body, he protested as they watched the scores tallying themselves along the screen. Father wasn’t used to taking a thirteen year old form. The limbs were all the wrong sizes; the muscles didn’t quite do what he said. Casper gave no sign that he had heard him, simply leaning forward and keying in a harder song.
Empathy sucked sometimes. It took some of the pleasure out of being cruel to the man when he had to feel the hurt it caused. In the end, it was still Father who caved in first.
“You know, I really don’t get why you’re so set on hating me,” the boy reproached as Casper led them through the store. “It’s not as though I’ve done that much to deserve it.”
Casper only snorted at that. There wasn’t any humor to it.
“Remember how you kissed me without asking? Or how you texted me for nudes? Heck. I could just be mad at you for stabbing someone in front of me.”
Behind him, he felt a glimmer of defensiveness sparking through the older man’s mind.
“Okay,” came the reply. “I’ll admit the kiss was unwarranted. I should have asked permission first, and I’m sorry. As for the text, I’ve already told you I was sorry for that, after having my head bitten off, I might add. But you have to remember that whatever else you think of me, I did save your life. Don’t you think I at least deserve a chance at a better first impression?”
Casper stopped in his tracks at that, his mouth open to retort, but nothing came. He wanted to tell Father he was wrong. He wanted to tell him that some things stopped you getting second chances. The moment he tried to speak the words, however, they stopped themselves dead in his throat. Why did it have to make him guilty?
“… Fine,” he muttered. “Tell you what. You want me to give you a chance? Sure. You manage to beat me at a single one of these games, and I’ll try. I’ll do everything I can to forget about the stuff you did.” He turned around, and looked the other boy dead in the eye. “But if I win, then you get to stay the creeper who tried to make me screw him.”
He’d been expecting the determination in Father’s response, and in the end, that wasn’t what surprised him. The older man narrowed his far too youthful eyes and nodded, but as he started moving to the next machine, he felt a perplexing note of sadness sitting beneath it all. He shook it from his mind. He had a fight to win.
The next hour passed in a determined kind of quiet. The pair of them moved from game to game through the arcade, stopping at every stall. At almost all of them, Father simply sucked. Casper barely had to try to defeat him. The racing games left Casper finishing in first place, while Father furiously tried to steer his car in a direction that wasn’t a wall. The shooting games went no better. As for anything physical, the man had his newfound body to contend with.
In the end, it came down to a round of air hockey. Casper wasn’t sure if it was the time spent practicing with it, but Father had grown better with his coordination towards the end. When it came down to this final game, the man was able to put up a fight.
They’d play for three rounds, they agreed. Best of five each time. Father was the first to score a point, and that was enough to make Casper take things seriously. When the first round ended, it was three to two, in Father’s favor.
Casper positively growled when the older man asked him if he’d like to open the next round, and again, he felt that note of sadness playing itself through Father’s mind. He ignored it.
The second game was an act of focus and ferocity. Casper sent puck after puck scooting along the table towards his foe, and defended his side with nothing short of zeal. More than once, the pucks simply went flying off the side of the table at the sheer force behind his shots. When it came to a close, however, the score was three to one. The sight of the puck sliding past Father’s defenses for that final point may well have been the most satisfying high he’d ever felt.
Without thinking, he shot his foe a grin, and felt a spark in Father’s mind that almost stopped him dead. Th man was happy to see him smile. Once again, Casper did his best to push that thought aside. He had enough guilt on his plate already. He wasn’t going to let some bet force him to forgive this man.
The final round came down to the wire. Two points on both sides. Casper was focused; Father was determined. It stretched for seconds, then minutes, shot after shot, parry and riposte. One particularly narrow angled shot nearly got him, and he brought his knobbly hockey thing in to block it with a growl like an angry lion. He gave Father another glare, and felt yet another tint of sadness in his adversary’s mind as he made his counter shot.
Father didn’t even try to block it. The puck slid into the slot with a loud clack, and the scoreboard between them pinged.
“Well,” Father muttered. “I guess that means you win. You get to keep thinking I’m a monster.”
“… What?” Casper asked, incredulous. “You let me win. Why’d you let me win?”
“Because winning made you smile,” Father replied sadly, tossing his plastic dealie down onto the table. “And I’d rather see you happy for a second than watch you pretend to hate me less.” At that, the man let out a long sigh, and turned towards the exit. “Well. It’s been two hours. You don’t need to be around me anymore today. You’ve kept your side of the deal.”
“…No. Screw that,” Casper muttered, annoyed. “That’s a pity win. I don’t want a pity win. Rematch. Now.”
“What?” Father glanced back, a note of apparent confusion in his mind. “Don’t you want to head home already?”
“That can wait,” Casper replied. “First, I’m gonna win this thing for real.”