In the back of his mind, hidden somewhere deep, Casper could have sworn he could hear a part of himself screaming as his new protector turned towards his former foe. He couldn’t think why, though. What possible reason could he have for panic when this new man was around? What could possibly be wrong when he was able to be this happy? Perhaps it was just the last traces of fear from before the man had come for him. Yes, that was probably it. After all, he could still feel the newcomer within his power, and he was still perfectly calm, so there couldn’t really be a reason to scream, now could there? He resolved simply to sit and bask in his newfound joy while he waited for the panic in his mind to fade and, sure enough, just as he felt the new man’s calm escape his senses, the tiny voice subsided, leaving only joy.
Casper smiled, propping himself against the wall on his no longer aching arms and watching his saviour curiously as the older man bent down to pick up the blade his former attacker had dropped. The man stepped towards the fallen woman, still quietly giggling to herself as the tears ran slowly down her face, and lowered himself down on his haunches to look her in the eye.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he said in that quiet, soothing voice, raising his free hand to the side of her face and stroking her cheek with his palm, his thumb slowly wiping clean the thin trail of tears still curving its way down towards her jaw. “I am so sorry, but you have sinned. You attacked a little one, and as punishment, I cannot allow you to die in the warm. You just don’t deserve it, I’m afraid.”
The woman didn’t respond to that with words, simply nuzzling her cheek against his hand with another quiet, happy little laugh. She didn’t even flinch as he drove the knife into her gut with his other hand, still just giggling tearfully to herself as she basked, much as Casper was, in the glorious warmth of the newcomer’s light.
Casper saw the man readying the blade, and he was happy; saw him drive it into her stomach, and he was happy. Why shouldn’t he be? This was all for him. He was safe now.
The woman’s strength gave out soon enough, her body slumping sideways towards the ground as something inside of her fell apart. As the man returned to his standing height, her rapturous crying slowly began to subside, her sobs slowly becoming bitter and cold as she bled. Casper paid her no mind. His attention was back on his protector.
He noticed, with just the faintest hint of annoyance, as the yelling in the back of his mind returned upon the man coming back within his range, his calm now touched by the barest hint of remorse at what he had been forced to do. Casper didn’t blame the man. He had been right to do what he did, after all. How could he not be?
The beautiful man stood before his slumped form, and reached down, offering him a hand.
“Are you alright?” He asked gently, that soft voice sending warmth washing though Casper’s mind like a dip in a hot bath.
“Yeah,” the boy replied quietly as he took the proffered hand, honestly meaning it for the first time in who knew how long. “I-I am… thank you.” He gave the man a smile as he felt himself being pulled to his feet, and within the man’s mind, he felt a momentary trace of the same warmth he’d felt in a hundred minds before, the slight, tingling thrill of attraction. He let out a small laugh at that, completely ignoring it as the shouting in the back of his mind grew just the tiniest bit louder. He liked that the man felt that way; wondered if he could use it to repay him, somehow. “… What do I call you?”
“I’m Father,” the older man smiled. “Call me that. It’s the only name I need. What do I call you?”
“Casper,” he replied. “Casper Sullivan.”
“Well, Casper,” Father murmured. “Do you have a home? Somewhere I can drop you off to make sure you’re safe?”
Father wanted to leave him behind somewhere? That felt like something Casper should be sad about, and for a moment, he tried to be, but it didn’t take; he was just too warm inside. He thought the question over for a moment, his mind a little fuzzy, and shook his head.
“Sorry,” he murmured. “But not really. My apartment isn’t safe right now, and I don’t wanna go back to my parents yet.”
“Why not your parents?” Father asked, a note of curiosity playing in the back of his mind as he absently raised a hand to Casper’s head and began running his fingers through his hair.
“They hurt me,” he replied with a contented sort of sigh, almost taken aback by himself; that had been so much harder to say before, but now it didn’t hurt at all. Maybe it was Father’s fingers pressing at his scalp. “Wanted me to get my powers. Kept hurting me when I kept them hidden. I ran away.” He listened inside the older man’s mind as curiosity and faint arousal gave way to a protective sort of sorrow. “…Are you gonna take me back there?”
“No,” Father replied quickly, his tone sharp for just a fraction of a moment, then Casper felt him force himself to calm as he resumed stroking his young companion’s hair. “… No. I don’t want to see a boy like you hurt, especially not by your own family. Family isn’t meant to do that.”
“I know,” he agreed, the tiny voice in the back of his mind building to a shrill, faintly annoying scream. “… I really wanna hate them for it.”
“… You’re a good boy, Casper,” Father murmured, glancing momentarily back to the still sobbing form of the woman behind him. “… and you must be pretty powerful to have the elves going after you like that. Are you a mage?”
“Since this morning, yeah,” he grinned. “I learned how to make flowers grow.”
Father didn’t respond to that for a time, a quiet tide of emotions rising and falling inside his mind as he thought to himself. Eventually, he seemed to come to a decision, and gave Casper a smile, his deep, ocean green eyes twinkling slightly down at him.
“I have a family,” Father murmured. “It’s a very happy one, and I promise, we never hurt each other like your parents did to you. Would you like to be a part of my family, Casper?”
The older man was leaning in now, his face just an inch or so away from Casper’s, his breath tickling off the boy’s skin. Father was aroused now, he could feel it. Inside himself, he felt that little voice turn from panic to a disgusted sort of fear, but again, he couldn’t see why. Everything was fine.
“I think I would,” he smiled. “If you’ll have me.”
“That’s good, Casper,” Father breathed. “It makes me very happy to hear.” Then, he moved forwards, and Casper felt the older man’s lips press against his own.
It was… surprisingly warm; almost soft, really. That little voice inside his head was still screaming in horror, struggling pointlessly against something he couldn’t really see. Again, it annoyed him. Why wouldn’t it just go away and let him enjoy his time with his newfound warmth? When Father finally pulled back, he was smiling, that gentle twinkle still dancing away inside his eyes. He dropped his hand from Casper’s hair, and took his hand.
“Come on then, little one,” Father murmured. “Let’s go get a milkshake and talk about your training.”
Casper chuckled lightly at the smile on his father’s face, and nodded, allowing himself to be tugged gently along down the alleyway, back the way they came. It happened just as they were passing the fallen woman’s form; her prone body was shoved inside the range of his shrunken bubble for a moment, and a tide of frustration and sadness fell against his mind with the weight of a collapsing house. At his first instinct, he tried to pull back, but something stopped him; that little voice inside his head. It wasn’t so little now. It was growing, and it wouldn’t let him look away. He stopped walking, and felt the sadness rushing into his mind, beating the happiness back, enforcing an equilibrium. In the centre of it all, treading that delicate line between emotional absolutes, the little voice held sway inside his mind.
“Something wrong, little one?”
The first thing Casper did upon regaining some sense of himself was to push his power out, expanding it as wide around his body as it could go. Five metres, ten metres, further and further, scrabbling for every mind he could get within his reach, trying to force this horrifying happiness down, make it as small a fraction of himself as he could manage. It was a cacophony, like a dozen sirens playing loud inside his head, and he welcomed it. Better anything than that cheerful, mellowed kind of subservience.
“Hey,” Father spoke again, shaking his hand slightly this time, a note of concern playing soft and low inside his mind. “Are you alright?”
Casper looked back at the man, and was almost sickened. He was still attractive; still had that glint in his eyes. Even as Casper feverishly tried to muffle it, he could still feel that damnable thing inside his mind telling him everything was going to be okay. He wanted to be sick.
“I-I’m alright,” he mumbled, forcing himself to look down towards the silently sobbing woman still bleeding on the floor. Best to pretend he was still under sway. He hated himself for doing it, but he lacked another choice. He dug into the happiness still seeping through into his mind, and used it to make his voice sound light as he asked: “… Is she gonna die?”
He felt a momentary regret inside the older man’s mind, touched by a lingering confusion, before the fingers wrapped around his hand gave it a little squeeze.
“Yeah,” Father murmured sadly. “I wish she didn’t have to, but she tried to take one of my children away to die. I’m afraid I’m not kind enough to let that go.”
Casper nodded. He couldn’t really bring himself to feel bad about the crying woman; he had bigger issues to focus on now, anyway. For the moment, best to pretend he was still under this creep’s power, then find his chance to slip away. He gave the older man his most convincing smile.
“Did you say milkshake?”
He felt Father’s mind settle back to paternal warmth at that. The older man grinned.
“Yup. Whatever flavor you like.”
Their journey to find a cafe together passed largely in silence, Casper focused largely on balancing the mad jumble of emotions continually shifting against one another inside his mind, Father apparently pleased simply by their silent companionship.
It was a difficult act to balance, and Casper was acutely aware of it all grating away at his mind, eating into what little remained of his mental endurance. He doubted he could hold on for long.
Eventually, Father led the two of them into a small roadside diner, asking the boy what flavor he wanted, before sending him to sit at an empty table to wait for him to make the order.
Casper went and sat, and took the opportunity to wipe the sweat from his brow. A few of the other customers were staring at him, and he couldn’t say he was really surprised. He expected he looked awful, his clothes torn to ribbons and more than a little stained with blood. There was a new problem here, though. Everyone was too calm, either kind of happy, which didn’t help to balance him against his opponent’s powers, or just relaxed, some mildly curious; not offering enough in the way of contrast. He felt the happiness digging slowly back into his mind; felt his thoughts growing fuzzy, and was only barely saved by his own perpetual fear.
Soon enough, Father turned, and made his way over to a seat opposite him, leaning his elbows lightly on the table and flashing a smile.
“So, my boy,” he said, his voice low. “What sort of powers do you have?”
Casper was struggling. He knew he needed to lie here, but he couldn’t think. Everything was too loud, too slow, and too fuzzy. After a few seconds, all he could manage in answer was a small shrug.
“It’s… kinda hard to describe,” he tried, fighting to keep a smile on his face. “I… don’t really know how it works myself.” His lip twitched and he was having to force himself to breathe. He swallowed. Was he sweating again?
Father cocked an eyebrow at him and leaned in, confused, slightly worried.
“Are you okay?” He asked. “Is there something I forgot to heal?” He reached out a hand across the table towards him. “Here, let me chec-”
“Please don’t touch me,” Casper blurted out, unthinking. He felt sick. “… I’m sorry. I don’t know what my powers do, so… Please?”
He felt the man’s concern deepen, a touch of pain edging at his mind.
“… You’re lying to me.” Father said quietly, his tone caught between astonishment and hurt. “Why? How? What’s wrong, little one?”
Casper had a moment to realize that he was done for, before he felt the happiness inside his mind begin to swell as the appalling man across the table attempted to calm him. It nearly made him gag.
“Don’t!” He yelped, panicked. “No more happy! Stop it!” The noises were pounding inside his head. He couldn’t breathe.
Father pulled away at that for a moment, recoiling his power from him as if bitten. In an instant, he felt the unnatural joy fade away inside of him, leaving him caught tangled in the noise of the people all around him. By instinct, he pulled his bubble tight once more around himself. Later, he realized that doing that had been a mistake, but now, in this moment, he needed to be alone inside his head. He needed to leave.
He pushed himself up from the table and stood on shaking legs, Father staring blankly at him, apparently stunned. He made it two slow, dizzied steps, before he fell to his knees, dropped forwards against his hands, and retched, sending the contents of his stomach out onto the greasy orange tiles of the floor.
All around him, people were turning now, staring, muttering amongst themselves about whether or not he was okay. He didn’t care. It was all wrong. He felt his empty stomach heave again, and let out a loud, strangled cry.
“Little one!” Father shouted from somewhere behind him. “Tell me what’s wrong. Let me help you!”
He felt Father’s power press against his mind once more as the man himself stepped falteringly inside his bubble, presumably in an attempt to aid him, his mind all confused fear and worry.
“Get out of my head!” He screamed, shoving himself back against the order counter, swinging his fist blindly at the older man. The happiness ceased building within him as Father flinched away. The last thing he felt from the man’s mind as he stepped back was a lost kind of hurt. He scrabbled at the surface of the counter, seized what handholds he could, and used them to pull himself to his feet. He leaned against it for a time, his breathing ragged as he desperately tried to pull his mind to calm. For the longest moment, no one moved.
When he finally had himself steady enough to think, if even a little, he turned his gaze back at his erstwhile rescuer, tears running gently down his cheeks, and spoke with all the venom his tired voice could bring to bear.
“If you ever do that to me again, I will find a way to make it hurt. Do you understand?”
With that, he ran, sprinting through the open door and out into the street. He had half expected the man to follow him, to try and stop him; but nothing did. He didn’t care anymore; he just ran.
The kind father stood there for a time, simply stunned as he stared after the departed boy. What the hell was that? Never, in all his years, had he seen a child react so badly to his light. Certainly, there were mages out in the world who were powerful enough to resist his warmth; but this wasn’t that. His newest child hadn’t been resisting him. He hadn’t forsaken the shelter he provided, so how had he reacted so poorly? What had gone wrong? What was different?
Still dazed, the father sank back into the faded leather of his seat, and tried to think. He was interrupted by a hand grasping at his shoulder; rough, angry.
“What the fuck did you do to that kid?” The stranger asked, his voice low, furious.
Father glanced around himself. The man wasn’t alone. The entirety of the eatery were staring at him now, most suspicious, some angry. They didn’t understand.
“Nothing you should worry about,” he murmured quietly, readying his power once more. “Best you all forget about it, really.” He pressed his light out into the room at large, and felt the man’s grip around his shoulder loosen, the rage and ignorance around him giving way to a calmer, gentler understanding. In the back of his mind, it was a relief. So his light wasn’t broken, then. “Don’t you worry about it, my friend,” he patted the now grinning man on the shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll soon sort him out.”