It felt… odd, moving through the building with Lewis. The minds in the rooms all around, their tones varying between mild happiness and moderate boredom, sat at odds with the faint waves of contempt emanating from his guide, and the far stronger feeling of it flowing from Tasha. Casper tried to push it out of his mind. Gathering info was the focus for now. Lewis carried his captive up along the hall, shifting his grip on her to a more comfortable carry now that they were away from prying eyes. Neither he nor Casper spoke as they moved along, climbing a cramped stairway into a small room where half a dozen people were gathered; mostly adults, a few around Casper’s age, their dress surprisingly casual for the moment.
They glanced up as Lewis approached, Casper close behind him, the old stairs creaking slightly underfoot, and Casper felt the emotions in the room change. Mild trepidation in the younger minds, a sense of something akin to triumph in the older ones. One of their number, a startlingly pretty woman in a simple shirt and pants, pushed off from where she leaned against the wall, facing the three of them.
“I’m guessing that’s the girl who tried to take the kids away, huh?” Casper would have caught the note of anger in her voice even if he couldn’t trace it in her mind. “Stay here. I’ll go get Marcus.”
Lewis nodded and the woman took her leave, stepping briskly off down the corridor and around the corner. Casper followed her mind with his power, tracing her as she moved, down the hall to a room against the far wall, where it would be pressed to the corner of the building. She gathered three others, each from a different room, before starting back towards them. He was uncomfortably aware that a few of the people nearby were gazing at him. One of the other kids had an eyebrow raised. There was no aggression in the attention, and he knew it; but it was unsettling, nonetheless. He swallowed.
“Who’s the kid?” one of the older ones asked, a hand raised towards him.
“New trainee,” Lewis replied shortly. “Giving him a bit of a tour.”
Before the conversation had the chance to continue, the woman returned.
“Right,” she muttered, gesturing to Lewis to follow her. “Come on. They’re waiting for you.”
The hunter turned his attention briefly to Casper.
“Stay here while I deal with this, okay? I should only be a minute or two.” With that, he strode off after the woman, Tasha still slung unceremoniously over his back.
For a moment, all was quiet. Casper stood nervously in the center of the small room, uncomfortably aware of all the eyes on him, trying as best he could to simply hold his focus on Tasha and ignore all else.
“Soo…” a teenager asked from his space by the small window, a glint of curiosity suffusing itself into his voice. “You’re one of Lewis’ new trainees? What do you do, then?”
“Uhh, what?” he replied, uncertain.
“You know,” the other boy continued, slightly annoyed. “You have powers, right? I mean, why else would the hunter be training you. So what do you do?”
“I…” Casper hesitated, before dropping his shoulders with a frustrated sigh. “Not much, really.”
“Holy crap,” the older boy murmured in a tone of feigned awe. “A superhuman who isn’t full of himself! I never thought I’d see one of those.”
A few of the younger teens snickered, amused, but Casper felt a flash of irritation from one of the older girls just a moment before she piped up.
“Alistair,” she chided. “Mind your manners.” The younger teen ignored her, so she turned her attention to Casper. “You want something to drink? You look kinda nervous.”
In spite of himself, he chuckled, allowing himself a momentary relief from the tension.
“Is it that obvious?”
There were a couple of nods around the room.
“You’re shaking like a leaf, buddy. Lemme guess, first time in a Family building?”
“I… I have no idea what that is,” he answered. “I’m… kinda new.”
The boy named Alistair laughed gently.
“Well then, I bet you have some questions. We have some time to kill. Why not go ahead and ask?” As he spoke, the older girl rose from her chair and walked off into the hall, hanging a right into one of the doorways that branched off of it. She returned a moment later, a can of lemonade clasped in a hand. She offered it to him, and he accepted, unsure what else to really do.
At the other end of the building, he felt Tasha changing hands, her fury replaced now by dread, accompanied by something else; not quite what he would call fear, but close. There were three other people in there with her now, besides the hunter. Two felt angry. The third was colder, more detached.
Casper popped the can open and took a sip, taking a few steps to one side and perching himself on the edge of one of the small armchairs that littered the space. For some reason, the first question that came to mind was also the most pointless, in a lot of ways.
“Why are you all so… you know… perfect looking?” he asked, his cheeks flushing slightly. Tasha had mentioned it a few times in the week since her first encounter with the inhabitants of the place and, looking around, he couldn’t say he disagreed. Among the faces of those in the room, he couldn’t spot a single blemish, all vibrantly colored eyes and perfect teeth. It was a little unnerving, actually.
“That’s father’s work,” he said with a note of pride. “Every new brother or sister gets his touch so he can make us into our perfect selves. Then all you have to do is exercise, eat right and remember to brush.”
Casper cocked an eyebrow at that, unsure what there really was that he could say. He gazed down at his soda can, thinking. Their father made them pretty? And they were all okay with that, even knowing why? What really confused him, though, was the cheer that the idea seemed to bring to them all. At Alistair’s words, they had all begun to smile, a faint note of happiness playing through each of them in turn. Then a thought occurred, and he shook himself. He was missing a prime opportunity here.
“Hey,” he mumbled. “Is… is there a bathroom I can use somewhere?”
“Sure,” the older girl answered, still smiling that strange smile. “Go downstairs, first door on the left.”
With a word of thanks, Casper rose from his seat and turned to leave. He made his way down the stairs as slowly as he thought he could manage without seeming off, then found the bathroom and went inside. It was a public style affair, luckily enough, a number of oddly luxurious cubicles running along a far wall. He stepped inside one, locked the door behind him, and pulled out Tasha’s phone.
Above him, he could feel Lewis departing the room with the three unknowns, leaving Tasha behind him. He cursed himself silently for not having done this earlier on. He keyed in the code to unlock the phone, then pulled up the text screen. He had entered James’ number by the time the man was back in the room with Alistair. Casper felt a momentary suspicion from him, only partially allayed a moment later when the other boy no doubt told him where Casper had gone. He hastened to write his message, tapping as fast as his fingers would allow as he attempted to relay all the relevant information in the limited time he had. Lewis was coming down the stairs. He had twenty seconds, maybe. He finished the message, and tapped send, then, without a moment’s pause, he turned off the phone, leaned down, and dropped it in the toilet, praying to god that the flush would be strong enough to carry it away. He heard the sound of a door swinging open, then Lewis spoke.
“You in here, little guy?”
“Uhh, yeah?” Casper replied, trying to make his voice sound confused rather than scared. Acting on a sudden realization, he undid his fly, and began to pee. “You mind waiting outside? I’m nearly done.” He could feel the suspicion still emanating from the man.
“… You know I’m gonna break your thumbs if you fuck with me, right?”
Casper shuddered, then forced himself to calm.
“Y-yeah. I know that.”
“Just making sure you remembered. Get a move on, will you? I don’t like this place.”
With that, Lewis left, closing the door behind him. Casper breathed a sigh of relief, then finished peeing. His captor had enhanced smell. He needed to actually go to the bathroom, or the lie would be obvious. Luckily, terror was good for that.
He finished his business, and hit the flush, silently praying for this to work. The phone rattled slightly against the basin as the current picked it up, before carrying it thankfully out of sight. Casper took a moment to be grateful that Tasha’s phone was an older, smaller model than his own, before shakily making his way outside, stopping only to wash his hands.
He opened the door to the hallway and was only half surprised when the older man immediately grasped him by the collar, pulling him somewhat off balance in the process, and began patting him down. He bore with it in silence until Lewis was satisfied that he wasn’t carrying anything, whereupon the hunter demanded to be shown the contents of his schoolbag. Eventually, the hunter was calmed, his suspicions allayed for the moment. He sighed, handing Casper back his school bag almost tiredly.
“Alright,” he murmured evenly. “Now it’s time to teach you about this world we’re in.”
Casper nodded, putting his arms back through the loops of his bag, trying not to let the relief show on his face.
“Yeah,” he answered quietly. “… I think there’s a lot I need to learn.”