Author’s Note: Alrighty, guys. Once more, I am linking to the ongoing one shot anthology thing being run by Revfitz. This week, the story I’m linking to is called Curse of The Magi and it’s written by Walter. Now that that’s been said, ON WITH THE STORY!!
Casper held the toothbrush under the tap for a second, then lifted it to his mouth. It was the third time he’d brushed his teeth that morning. The first two had been to get rid of the lingering taste of vomit. This one was in hopes of chasing away the memory of Father’s lips. He ran the brush over his tongue, forcing the minty foam in between his taste buds in an attempt to force everything else out. It didn’t work. He brushed harder.
He heard a knock on the bathroom door behind him, then heard Mel’s voice speaking through it.
“Casper? Freja went out and picked up some clean clothes for you. I’m leaving them by the door.”
“Thank you.” He replied, his words muffled by the foam coating the inside of his mouth as he stepped towards the door.
For a brief moment, he felt Mel’s mind inside his bubble before she stepped away. The woman was practically radiating concern. He felt a pang of guilt at that. He must have been quite the sight when he’d turned up on her doorstep the night before, his ragged clothes covered in a mixture of bile, dirt and his own blood. She’d ushered him up to the apartment above the shop and sat him down on her couch before setting off to get Freja. He’d been asleep by the time either of them got back.
Casper sighed. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this to them.
He opened the door a crack, saw the neatly folded shirt and pants sitting just outside, and grabbed them. He got halfway through taking off his current shirt before deciding he needed a shower. He hoped Mel wouldn’t mind.
He stepped out of the bathroom twenty minutes later cleaner than he had been in days, the soiled remnants of his old clothes held in a loose bundle under one arm.
Mel and Freja were waiting for him outside, sitting at Mel’s small breakfast table, a pot of tea between them. Both women turned to look at him as he stepped through the door.
“… Thanks for the clothes,” he mumbled. “… And for letting me sleep here.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Freja murmured. “Are you gonna tell us what happened?”
“I…” He paused, trying to think through the events of the last day enough to even make sense of them for himself, let alone anyone else. “Honestly, I don’t know.” Freja raised an eyebrow at that. Mel opened her mouth to speak, but he clarified before she got a word out. “I mean. I sorta know what happened; it just doesn’t make any sense, you know?”
Neither Mel nor Freja said anything at that; they simply gazed at him, waiting for him to continue. After a moment’s awkward silence, he sighed, stepping over to the couch on which he’d spent the night asleep and planting himself on the arm of it so that he was facing them. He spent a moment looking for an appropriate place to deposit his old clothes that wouldn’t seem rude, before Mel flicked a finger and the entire foul smelling bundle pulled itself from his hands, wrapped itself into a tight ball, and launched itself into the kitchen, where it landed in a bin with a clang. On any other day, Casper would have been impressed. Today, however, he barely even noticed.
Instead, he took a long breath, and began to speak. He told his teachers about the birds, about the strangers he’d found following him, and their mutual flight from the swarm. He told them about the attack on the bridge; he tried to play off his trick with the grenade as more of a lucky shot than anything related to his power. Through all of it, the two women just listened; Mel occasionally nodding, Freja impassive. He left out his encounter with Father, however. It was too… embarrassing? No. That wasn’t quite the word. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something he wanted to share with a pair of near-strangers. Instead, he simply said that the agent had healed him before he ran. Neither of them questioned it.
“So, yeah,” he murmured as his tale drew to a close. “I came here cuz… well, it was the only place I could think of that might be safe to spend the night with all the stuff going on. Sorry.”
Freja nodded at that.
“Fair call,” she murmured. “So, you got caught up in that mess with the elves, huh? We heard about that. You’re lucky you got away. Far as I can tell, most of the other victims were found unconscious in a cavern below central park.”
“Elves?” Casper asked. He dimly recalled Father making some mention of them the day before. But couldn’t remember any explanation. “What does them being elves have to do with it?”
“Because that’s what elves do,” Freja grunted. “Hop across the border to our world every couple months to kidnap people with magical potential. It’s rare that they target cities, though. Too many people who can fight back.”
“You should be safe now, though.” Mel added. “Word is that the last of them was captured last night. The birds have been rounded up, too.”
Casper spent a few moments trying to absorb that new piece of information. He didn’t succeed. Superpowered interdimensional kidnappers was too much to take in when he was still so tired. Instead, he set the idea aside for later.
“… Is there a phone I can borrow?” He asked. “I need to call some people. Kinda promised a friend I’d let him know I’m okay.” Mel nodded, pulling a battered looking flip phone from her pocket and tossing it across to him. “Thanks.”
He dialed the number by memory, watching Freja take her leave as the line connected. The person on the other end didn’t speak.
“Hey, James,” he murmured, trying to push some of the tiredness out of his voice. “It’s Cas. Are you there? I… I could really use someone to talk to right now.”
“James isn’t here right now, Casper,” Replied a man’s voice. “This is his father.”
“Oh.” He mumbled. “Uh, hi, Mr Toranaga. Can uhh… Can you tell me when he’s gonna be back?”
“Oh, he’s home,” the older man replied. “He’s downstairs. I’ll take you to him in a minute. I just wanted to ask you a few things first, okay?”
“… Is this about me running away?”
“… Did James tell you?”
“No, your dad did. He’s very worried about y-”
“I don’t care if he’s worried.” Casper grumbled. “He deserves to be.” He didn’t have the energy to be truly angry. He settled for disappointed. Couldn’t the universe just let him talk to his friend for a bit without making things all complicated?
“… Yeah, I can understand that,” there was a deep sigh on the other end of the line. “Doesn’t stop it being true, though.” The reaction caught Casper off guard. He’d been expecting judgement.
“… How much did he tell you?” He asked.
“That he hurt you,” came the reply. “That it’s his fault you ran away.”
“… Well,” Casper muttered. “He’s not wrong.”
“Are you still in New York?”
“Good. In that case, I’m going to give you a phone number for a place that will make sure you’re housed and fed while all of this is sorted out, okay?”
Casper was silent for a few seconds at that, trying to force his exhausted brain to think through the implications of the idea.
“… Is there a nice way of saying I don’t trust you?” He asked.
It was a long while before the older man answered.
“That stings, Casper,” he said quietly. “I haven’t done anything to earn that from you.”
“Sorry,” Casper lied. “But it’s true. How do I know I won’t go there and find my parents waiting for me? I’d rather just handle it myself.”
“Oh come on,” Mr Toranaga replied, annoyed. “That’s just dumb. You’re a thirteen year old boy. You know you can’t do it all on your own.”
“I’m not on my own,” he snapped back, irritated. He could feel Mel’s eyes watching him from across the room. He didn’t look at her. This was his business. “I’m staying at a friend’s place. I’m handling it fine!”
He heard the other man begin to retort, before being cut off by another voice, too quiet for him to make out the words. The two seemed to argue back and forth for a few moments, before there was a rustling noise, and a woman’s voice spoke into the line. It was one he recognized; James’ mom.
“Hey, Casper,” she started, sounding almost as tired as he felt. “I’m sorry about Peter. He gets stupid about stuff he cares about.”
Casper forced himself not to groan. Great. Another adult to deal with. All he wanted was to speak to his friend. Was that so hard?
“Look,” he pleaded, raising his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. “If I let you give me the number, will you just let me talk to James?”
The older woman sighed at that.
“Okay,” she said, her tone calm. “That was sort of rude, but I’m gonna let it slide because we both know you’re not having the best time right now. I get it. You probably feel really ganged up on and you’re worried we want to send you back to your parents and maybe a hundred other things I haven’t thought of. But this is a conversation you need to have with someone, because running away just isn’t enough of an answer on its own. Would it help if I brought James up here to join us? Give you someone you know for sure is on your side?”
“… Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. Do that, please.”
There was another quiet exchange on the other end of the line, before Sarah’s voice came back.
“Right. Peter’s just getting him. I’m gonna put you on speakerphone, okay? It’ll be just you, me and James. Peter will be here too, but he’s going to be being quiet just in case he starts being dumb again.”
Once again, the phone line rustled, then he heard a thump, and what sounded like the distant blaring of a television.
“Hey, Casper,” murmured James’ voice into the following quiet. “You doing okay?” It was a surprising relief, hearing that. Casper felt himself sag slightly in his seat, muscles that he hadn’t even realized were clenched suddenly going loose once more.
“Heh,” he chuckled. “God. I hope I am. It’s good to hear from you, bud.”
“Good to hear from you too,” the other boy replied. “I was worried, you know?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” Casper leaned back in his seat, letting himself fall back off of the arm of the couch and into the cushions. “I’ve had a long couple of days.”
Before James had a chance to respond, Sarah cleared her throat.
“Anyway,” she murmured. “Back to the big issue here, alright? Casper. I know you don’t trust us, but I want to ask you something about that, okay?”
“Is there any reason I’d be on your parents’ side here?” She asked. “I like you, Casper. You’re a nice kid, you’re kind to Bex, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve been helping James deal with some of the things that happened to him that he doesn’t feel comfortable bringing to us. Your parents, on the other hand, are two people I’ve never met, who apparently abuse their son. So, again, why in God’s name do you think either one of us would not be on your side?”
Casper opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. He could think of no real counter there.
“Okay,” Sarah murmured. “Moving on. I’ve been thinking it over, and I have an idea that I’d like you to think about, okay?”
“Right,” she continued. “So, you don’t really trust the number we were going to give you. That’s okay. But the fact remains, we need to get you to a place where everyone can be sure that you’re getting all of the things you need, and where you’re around people you can trust. So hear me out. What if Peter and I called your parents, and told them that you were going to be staying at our house until we can get everything sorted out that needs to be sorted out? That way, we can be sure that you’re safe and secure and are even able to go to the same school as normal.”
“That’s a thing we can do?” James asked excitedly. “You promise?”
“Depends if Linda and Ray are willing to agree to it,” Peter spoke up. “But if they’re given a choice between him staying with us and living on the streets, I’m pretty sure they’ll agree to it.”
“Well, Casper?” Sarah asked. “What do you think?”
Casper didn’t answer. He was busy thinking. It sounded like a good plan; a really good plan. Almost too good to be true, if he was honest, but he wanted to be sure.
“Cas?” James asked. “You okay?”
“Do you promise my parents won’t be allowed to come near me till I say so?” He asked, his voice quiet.
“… No,” Sarah replied. “Only your parents can promise that.”
“We can promise they won’t be allowed inside our house until you say so, though.” Peter interjected. “If they do, I’ll have to punch your dad in the face again.”
“You punched my dad?” Casper asked, surprised.
“He’d just told me he was beating his kid. What was I supposed to do?”
“… I like you now.”
“Peter,” Sarah chided. “Shush. You’re being quiet now, remember? Well, Casper? Is that everything? Now’s the time to ask.”
“If my parents agree to it all,” Casper muttered. “Then sure… But only if they promise to stay away from me.”
“I’ll make the call.” Said Peter.
From their end of the line, Casper thought he heard a door swing closed, the distant sounds of the tv shutting off in its wake. For the next few minutes, no one spoke, all three of them simply waiting for the verdict, breath bated. Then, the door opened again, and Peter spoke.
“Well, they agreed to it,” he murmured. “Not sure if Ray wants to hug me or kill me right now, but they agreed.”
Casper let out that stored up breath in a long, low sigh.
“So,” he mumbled, somehow even more exhausted than he had been a moment ago. “If I’m at the GameStop near your house in an hour, can we meet up there?”
“We’ll be there,” Sarah murmured. “James, too.”
“Yup!” James agreed brightly. “Holy heck, it feels so much better knowing you’re okay!”
“Heh,” Casper chuckled. He really needed to teach James some real swear words. “Yeah. It does. See you there.” With that, he hung up, leaned his head back against the couch cushions, and closed his eyes. Why did everything feel so much lighter now?
“So,” Mel’s voice asked. “You have a place to go now?”
“Yeah,” he replied exhaustedly. “I do. Thanks for all your help, Mel. How much do I owe you guys for the clothes? Cuz I’m pretty sure there’s, like, three thousand dollars in those pants you threw in the garbage.”
Mel snorted. Casper grinned.
Fifteen minutes later, he bid his teacher goodbye and made his way down the narrow steps that led from her apartment to the Rose Bouquet. The store was almost empty when he stepped inside, in spite of the veritable crowds of people making their way along the pavement outside. He gave Freja a wave on his way by and received a curt nod in return. Apart from the two of them, there was only one other person in the place, a well dressed boy who looked perhaps a year or two older than Casper himself, perusing what looked like a collection of birthstones on one of the shelves. Casper glanced casually at them as he passed, wondering what had the older boy’s interest. That was when he felt it.
He had his bubble wrapped in close around himself, too tired willingly take on too much of the emotions of those around him. Because of this, he only felt the other boy’s mind touch his own when they came within a few feet of one another. Casper didn’t recognize the boy’s face at all; but he recognized the feel of his mind immediately. Calm, collected, and just a little bit kind.
He began to run.