Aid: 5.5

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Author’s Note: Okay. First up, sorry for being gone so long. First, I was just getting ready for university, then I was helping a family member move house, then I was getting acquainted with a new job. Basically, I’ve had stuff going on. My apologies. Secondly, this is a pretty short chapter, I know. It was a sequence that was too small to make a full sized chapter out of, but it was also too big to just staple it onto another chapter without breaking flow. So, you’re getting this chapter now, and hopefully, another one in a few days time. Thanks for being so patient with me. Enjoy.


James:

“Well, my grandpa says you weren’t lying about the ritual,” James mumbled, resting the phone tiredly against his ear, his head lolling gently against his hands. It was seven PM, and he’d had the longest day. “But it sounds like we’d better wait a couple days to get it done. He said something about setting up a hideout for you with a friend of his.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Caleb replied on the other end of the line. “I don’t think so, at least. Our bosses might make us pull another hunt by then, but I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and give em what they want, right?”

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Guess so. Oh yeah, and Tasha says she wants to put you in a headlock while you’re doing it. Just in case. You know?”

At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled.

“Hey. She can try it if she wants. See how that goes down.”

James snickered.

“She’d kick your butt.”

“She’d try.”

James allowed himself a small smile, and shook his head. Right. That was one job done. Now he just had to apologize to Cas-

“There might be one small problem,” Caleb admitted. “I’m, uh. I’m pretty sure Twenty Three’s figured something’s up. I don’t think she’ll come quietly when we try to free her.”

James put the phone in his lap, rested his head in his hands, and groaned. First the training session, then therapy, and now this. When would today just end?

“… I’ll talk to Tasha about maybe backing you up,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t need that much help though, right? I thought you said that stuff was gonna supercharge you.”

“Yeah,” Caleb’s voice replied. “That’s the hope, at least.”

From outside of the room, James heard the front door click, and the muted sounds of speech in the hallway below. Casper, finally back from wherever the heck he’d gone. Twelve seconds ago, that realization would have filled James with another wave of dread at the last of the evening’s obstacles. Now, though, it gave him an excuse to end this talk with Caleb before any more problems were added to the pile.

“Hey,” he said. “I gotta go, alright? Got some stuff to do before bed. I’ll get Tasha to message you in the morning. They wanna meet up with you anyways.”

He hung up before Caleb had quite finished his reply. It was rude, but he figured the older boy owed him one on that. Then, he put the phone aside, leant his palms against his knees, and tried to psych himself up for the task.

Okay, James, he said inside his mind, listening to the faint thumps as Casper climbed the stairs towards his room. You’ve hung out with Jiji. You’ve gone to therapy. You’ve planned a rescue. Now you just gotta tell Casper you’re sorry you yelled. Easy peasy, right?

James hated the voice in his head, sometimes. Nevertheless, he pushed himself up off his bed with a groan.

The aches and pains had come and gone sporadically in the hours since his mishap with the skeet, seeming to fade away for a while on their drive back to manhattan, before returning with a vengeance in the hours since his session with Doctor Sharpe. It was fine as long as he was moving, but he really didn’t feel like moving now. He’d have rather flown, but he couldn’t. Bex was around, and as far as his parents knew, Casper still had zero clue what magic was.

He stood, spent a few seconds creakily straightening up, then stepped forwards towards the door, and out onto the landing.

It took James longer than he’d have liked to traverse the distance between his and Casper’s rooms; only partially because of the stiffness in his joints. He didn’t want to do this. Apologizing sucked.

He took a deep breath, then a second one, and raised a hand to the door, knuckles poised to knock.

Half a minute later, he lowered it back down again.

Come on, James. Stop being a wuss. Just put on your big boy pants and-

“Dude,” Casper’s voice called through the door, sounding almost as tired as James felt. “Just make up your mind already. You coming in or not?”

Friggen’ radar brain.

Regretfully, James pushed the door open, and stepped inside.

Casper was sitting on the bed, a video game controller in his lap, his gaze set determinedly on the TV screen. James shut the door behind him, and leaned himself against the wall, his arms folded in tight over his chest. Neither spoke.

After a few moments, Casper’s television chimed, a game loading up on the screen.

Just say you’re sorry.

James opened his mouth to speak, and Casper turned to look at him. Nothing came out. Casper returned his gaze to the TV.

Why was this so hard?

James shook himself, and tried again. What eventually came out wasn’t exactly what he’d planned.

“… His name’s Caleb,” he muttered. “The guy I was sneaking out to meet.”

For a moment, James regretted it; spilling the secret like that. But this was Casper. This was important.

This time, when Casper turned to face him, he wasn’t frowning. Now, he looked concerned.

“Who is he?” the other boy asked. “What’s he want?”

“He, uh,” James swallowed. “Stuff. He wanted to do some really stupid stuff to rescue a girl he likes. So, that’s what I’ve been dealing with.”

For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” James took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh, before moving to sit beside his friend. “And, uh. Sorry I got mad at you.”

At that, Casper shook his head.

“Sorry I pushed like I did,” he muttered back. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Yeah.”

The two were silent then for a time, James simply sitting beside his friend while Casper moved his character aimlessly through a level.

It was surprising, really. That had been far less painful than James had been expecting. It was nice, being comfortable like this again. Maybe he was just tired.

Eventually, Casper spoke again.

“So, that thing about the phone.”

That got his attention.

“Yeah?”

“So…” Casper seemed to hesitate for half a second, before apparently coming to a decision. “The thing is, when I ran away from home… I kinda got myself a magic teacher.”

“Really?” James asked, honestly surprised. “I thought you kinda just wanted to forget about it.”

Casper chuckled.

“It’s hard to forget about when you can’t turn it off, dude. You know that, Mr. ‘I weigh thirty pounds.’”

James conceded the point with a sigh. The changes to his body weight hadn’t gotten any easier to deal with in the last few weeks. There’d been one embarrassing incident when he’d tried to take a bath, only to find himself floating upwards in the water, bobbing along the surface like an oversized rubber duck.

“So, I got myself a teacher,” Casper continued. “Didn’t wanna tell you because getting training when you’re not registered’s kind of a legal no-no, but yeah. The phone’s how he’s been staying in contact with me.”

“… And asking you about your school day?”

“Yeah,” Casper groaned. “He’s also kind of a creep.”

“… You okay?”

“Yeah,” James felt Casper’s fist bonk him gently on the shoulder. “I’m okay.”

“Good,” James muttered. “You’re still a doof, though.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. You too.”

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Aid: 5.4

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Casper:

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.

“Why creepy?”

“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.”

Casper nodded.

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 eyes and nodded, but as they started moving to the next machine, Casper 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. The 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.”

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Dissonance: 4.12

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Author’s Note: Well, this one should be interesting. Sorry it took so long. So. First up, here’s a link to the bonus chapter vote for this arc, and secondly, an awesome dude called Sharkerbob has done a dramatic read-through of one of my chapters. Both of those things are cool, especially Sharker. So, moving on, let’s do the chapter.

James:

“I don’t get why I have to meet them, though,” Casper grumbled, following grudgingly along in the other boy’s wake. James rolled his eyes.

“Cuz you need more friends, Casper,” he replied shortly, lowering his voice a little as they approached the table. “Just me isn’t enough. Besides, I’m tired of having to choose between you and them every day.” At that, he raised his voice again. “Hey, guys! This is Casper. He’s a doof. Can we friend him?”

The table was mostly empty today, most of the group having likely set off once again for a game. Charlie was there, though, along with Nailah. At James’ call, the two of them glanced up from the array of monster cards scattered across the tabletop. Charlie’s freckle dusted face split into a grin.

“Hey, James!” he called. “Hey, Casper. Give us like, two seconds, okay? I’m so close to a win here.”

Nailah snorted at that.

“Nope,” she murmured back, laying down a fresh card. “I cast ‘Barrel of Explodium’. That’s you out of life points. Again.”

“What? No,” Charlie protested. “That’s six damage. I had seven left. I know I did!”

James chuckled at that, tugging Casper in behind him as he sat.

“Don’t argue maths with Nai; she’ll just make you lose harder.”

Charlie shot him a scowl. He countered with the most innocent smile he could manage. Beside him, Casper sat down on the bench, frowning, eyes on the table.

James sighed, and prodded the older boy in the ribs.

“Oi. No clamming up for you.” When Casper didn’t respond, he turned his gaze to the others. “Casper runs a light deck. Keeps trying to beat me with just human soldiers and enchantments.”

“Well that’s lame,” Charlie replied, picking up James’ lead and thankfully running with it. “Humans are like, one/one monsters across the board, right? How can you win without any decent champions?”

For a few moments, the words hung dead in the air, Casper still frowning quietly down at the tabletop. James had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Nailah had just opened her mouth to speak, when Casper replied, his voice small.

“Didn’t you just try and beat fire with a forest deck?”

The words earned him a smile from Nailah, and a playful glare from Charlie.

“Hey,” he shot back. “Don’t you go dissing my green deck. I’ll take the whole world on with nothing but bunnies and tiger spells.”

“Say that after you beat me, kay?” Nailah countered. “My fire shall reign forever.”

“… I totally need to bring my deck sometime,” Casper murmured, giving the girl a small smile. “My humans will destroy you.”

“Foolish mortal,” Charlie countered as he gathered up his cards. “It takes more than mere men to counter the gods.” He gave James a nudge on the shoulder. “You bring your deck today?”

“Nope.” James shrugged. “I had some other stuff going on. Got kinda distracted. Sorry.”

“Wanna play with mine?” Charlie held up his freshly collected deck. “See if you can beat the fire queen?”

“Uh, sure.” James took the proffered deck, and shuffled around the table to sit across from Nailah. Charlie shifted a little to give him some room, then, out of nowhere, grabbed him by the shoulder, and gave him a noogie, ignoring both his outrage and his protests.

“You can do this, squire. I believe in you.”

“Hah!” Nailah cackled, apparently getting rather into her fire queen bit. “You expect me lose to the likes of him? He is but a child with a borrowed deck!”

James didn’t answer immediately, he was too busy fixing his hair. He shot Charlie a glare, and the taller boy smiled back, sunny as ever. He slung an arm around James’ shoulders, and leaned in to murmur a loud stage whisper into his ear.

“She is weak, young padawan. Her fire runs only on stolen power. You can unseat her, child. It is your destiny.”

James took a moment to respond to that. He wanted to be annoyed at the taller boy for messing up his hair, but it was hard. He found himself distracted for a moment by the weight of the arm over his shoulders, his attention somehow drawn to how close Charlie’s lips were to his ear. He felt his cheeks grow a little warm.

Nope.

He wrenched his mind away from that particular line of thought with all the force he could muster, and shook himself.

“Not a child,” he grumbled, managing a decent approximation of irritation as he ducked out from under the other boy’s arm. “I’m a grown up now. My dad even let me say the F word.”

“He let you say fuck?” Casper asked, grinning. “Wow, such a cool dad.”

“Yeah,” Nailah murmured, shooting him a wink. “I wish my dad let me say fuck. That’d be so ace.”

“… Shut up.”

“I guess I’ll have to stick with good ol’ Gee Willikers,” Casper continued. “Cuz I’m just not a real grown up yet.”

James glowered at him.

“Come on, guys,” Charlie cut in, his tone placating. “Don’t be mean. Saying the F word is very grown up.” James had just enough time to feel grateful, before the boy added a follow up. “I’m sure he’d be happy to demonstrate for us, too. Go on, James.”

“… What?” James looked into the other boy’s face at that, ready to protest. Charlie’s eyes were very blue under the auburn of his hair. He looked away.

“Swear,” Charlie murmured, humor teasing at the edges of his tone. “Say fuck, since you’re such a cool adult and all.”

“… I was only s’posed to say it once,” he muttered, glaring at his legs.

“Such an adult.”

“I hate all of you.”


The rest of the day passed largely uneventfully. James played cards with his friends, debated TV shows with Casper, and went to class. It was soothing, to an extent. Everything felt right again. All things in their place. He went home, did his homework, and played with Bex while Casper worked in the kitchen. When dinner came, he was honestly surprised. Turned out the other kid really knew how to cook. It was some kind of pasta, and it was delicious.

The only hiccup came when he and Casper moved to his room that evening, deciding to watch more shows while the other boy caught up on his school work.

He was sitting on the floor, muddling through an overlarge case of DVDs, when the other boy spoke, his voice quiet.

“So, Charlie’s kinda cool.”

James smiled to himself at that, still flicking through page after page of discs.

“I know, right?” he murmured. “It’s super cool you two are friends now. We do choir practice together, and he sings really we-”

“He’s cute, too,” Casper continued, his tone casual. “Don’t you think?”

James froze for a moment at that, his hands halting midway through tugging the right disc from its sleeve. It took his mind a few moments to wind back into motion.

“… What was that?” He glanced back at Casper. The boy was gazing at him, his expression calm.

“Charlie,” Casper repeated. “You think he’s cute.”

“… No I don’t,” James muttered, returning his gaze to the discs. “Don’t be dumb.”

“I’m not being dumb,” the other boy replied. “Empath, remember? Why’d you go all weird when he got close to you? Cuz it felt a like you were having sexy thou-”

“Can you not?” James asked, his voice caught between pleading and irritation. “Please? I felt weird for a couple seconds, that’s all. You don’t need to put any other stuff into it.” He pressed the button to open up the DVD player, and let out a huff. “… This is why being friends with you is weird. I never get to just deal with stuff on my own.”

For a few seconds, Casper didn’t respond. A part of James wondered if he’d hurt the other boy. He refused to look at him. When the older boy finally spoke, his voice was quiet.

“… You know there’s nothing wrong with liking boys, right?”

James let out an aggravated grunt at that.

“Of course I do,” he snapped. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t. Like. Boys.” He put as much emphasis as he could into the last few words, then shot his friend a scowl. Casper was still just sitting there, utterly calm. “Even if I did, I don’t want to deal with all the sexy stuff right now. It’s gross!”

For a few minutes, the two of them were quiet. James was angry. He wasn’t even all that sure why. He just knew that Casper was making him angry, with those stupid calm words and that stupid calm face. He glared at it.

After a long while, Casper sighed.

“Empathy sucks sometimes, you know?”

James didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned on the TV, and finished setting up the show. He got up, plopped himself down on the furthest edge of the bed from Casper that he could, and set his eyes to the screen, not really seeing it. Neither of them spoke.

He was still angry when, ten minutes later, his phone rang. He picked it up without bothering to look at the screen, and pressed it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Caleb.”

For the briefest moment, James felt a tiny flicker of relief undercut his rage. He’d been worried for a while there that Caleb might not want to speak to him.

“Hey,” he murmured, ignoring the way Casper’s gaze shifted across to him. “You uh… You doing okay?”

At the other end of the line, Caleb let out a tired laugh.

“No. Not really. I uh. I was hoping you could maybe come see me? I… Kinda wanted to explain some stuff.”

“Sure,” James replied, perplexed. “You got a time ready to do a meet up or-”

“I’m at the park near your place,” Caleb cut him off. “The one with the skateboards. Can you meet me? It’s kind of important.”

For a moment, James considered saying no. His parents were home. It was already getting dark. Then he glanced at Casper, felt another twinge of anger.

“Sure. Just give me a couple minutes. Kay?” He didn’t wait for a response before he hung up. He dropped the phone in his pocket, and stood up. The basketball sat in the far corner of the room, and he extended a hand, his power reaching out along with it to grasp the air inside the sphere. The practice bouts had helped a lot with his control, and now, the ball flew straight as he pulled it towards his hand, its movement quick, but steady.

“I’m going out,” he muttered behind himself. “I have some stuff to do.”

“… Stuff we’re allowed to talk about?” Casper asked, his tone a tad concerned.

“No,” James replied shortly. “Other stuff.”


It wasn’t too hard for James to get his parents to let him outside. They might be a little restrictive, but it was still early enough in the evening, and they knew he could defend himself. He promised to be back in an hour, and stepped outside, the ball tucked under an arm.

One short walk later, he found Caleb at the park, sitting alone on the lip of the skate rink. Without a word, he walked over, and sat himself alongside him.

Caleb didn’t look too good. There were shadows under his eyes, a trace of blood and dust still clinging to his clothes from yesterday’s fight. James didn’t ask about the fresher blood on his knuckles, nor the dried tears across his cheeks.

“… What’s up?” he asked, turning his gaze down into the skating pit. He absently tossed the basketball down into it, and watched the thing as it bounced.

“… I’ve been lying to you,” came the response, Caleb, like himself, opting to just watch the ball as it moved. “Wanted to say sorry I’m a shitty friend.”

James wanted to say the words were surprising, but they weren’t. He wasn’t an idiot.

“You mean you’re not a teenage monster hunter?” he asked, his voice deadpan.

Caleb chuckled.

“Actually, that’s the only thing I told you that was true. It’s the rest that was all BS. I am a monster hunter, but I wasn’t trying to train you.” James chanced a glance at the older boy. Caleb was still just watching the ball, his hands clasping together in his lap, still gently dripping blood. He returned his gaze to the ball, and gave it a little push with his wind to keep it bouncing.

“… What were you trying to do, then?”

At that, Caleb allowed himself another short chuckle, and closed his eyes.

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

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Dissonance: 4.10

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James:

“I don’t know who did it,” he muttered, still glaring at the floor. “Just some guy in a bathroom.”

James hesitated for a moment, then began to raise his head towards his grandfather, before Hideyoshi stopped him short.

“Don’t,” the old man grunted. “Please don’t look at me right now.”

James considered that for a moment, before that sense of betrayal won over, and he looked the man in the eye.

For what it was worth, Hideyoshi didn’t flinch. His face was set and red, every muscle standing out in contrast beneath his skin. His eyes were wide. He looked back at his grandson, and James wasn’t even sure if he was seeing him.

Huh, he thought. So that’s what hatred looks like.

Hideyoshi held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath, just the tiniest touch of shame cutting through his voice. James watched as the man stepped away, rolling his head a little on his shoulders, his hands slowly unclenching once more from fists. It didn’t work.

“Fuck!” Hideyoshi bellowed, swinging an arm towards the nearest of the couches lining the training mat. James thought he saw a flash of something red dash forth from his grandfather’s hand, before the couch exploded, erupting with a whumpf in a plume of light and heat.

James stepped forwards towards the counter-top, and rested on his elbows against it, watching. How was this supposed to make him feel? What was any of this supposed to do? He watched as his grandfather raised his hands to his face and let out a loud, muffled scream against his palms.

The fire alarm went off.

Neither of them reacted much as the water began spraying from the ceiling, covering everything below in a layer of damp, faintly musty smelling fluid. It didn’t even manage to put out the fire.

From off to the side, James heard footsteps. Someone running. He glanced across, just in time to see Tasha emerge from the hallway, her expression panicked. She looked to Hideyoshi, still caught in whatever battle was raging on inside himself, then looked to James, and saw his face.

“Ah,” she grunted, her face going from adrenaline to scowl in an instant. “So I’m guessing he’s your granddad, then.”

“Yeah,” he muttered back as she began picking her way over to him, utterly ignoring the water beginning to soak its way through her clothes. “He didn’t take it well.”

In the corner of his eye, James watched as something else exploded. Another couch? No. That one looked like a table.

After a moment or two, Tasha reached him, leaning down on her elbows beside him on the counter.

They watched together in silence for a minute as Hideyoshi raged. Then, the old man slumped himself down in the smoldering remains of a chair, and held his head in his hands.

James felt a hand settle gently on his back, and glanced across. Tasha was gazing at him, that scowl still fixed quite firmly to her face. She jerked her head silently to Hideyoshi.

He took a breath, pushed himself back up from his place against the kitchen counter, and nodded.

However out of it Hideyoshi was, it seemed there was still a place somewhere inside him that was annoyed by the blaring of the fire alarm. Around the time that James made it halfway to him, he jerked a wrist in the direction of the ceiling, and the noise went quiet with a crack of snapping plastic.

The couch was still on fire as James moved towards the spot beside his grandpa, but he threw an absent gust of wind, and the flames died away a tad. Hideyoshi saw the boy approach, and the fire died down a deal further.

It should have felt awkward, James thought as he wrapped his arms around the older man’s chest, pressing a cheek against his ribs. It wasn’t, though. His grandfather was very warm in the present damp. The man was still for a moment, then James felt a hand come to rest atop his head, the fingers tussling at his hair.

“I hoped you’d never see me like that,” Hideyoshi muttered, mournful.

“I never wanted you to see this thing, either,” he replied, raising a finger to give his mark a flick. “Didn’t want you looking at me different.”

“… Sorry.”

James shook his head.

“Don’t,” he muttered, pulling back for a moment, before bringing his head forwards against his grandfather’s ribs in a gentle headbutt. “What matters is we’re family, right? We love each other.”

“… You promise you won’t be scared of me?” The hand atop his head gave his hair another ruffle.

“Only if you promise not to feel sorry for me.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet chuckle.

“Guess we have a deal there.” He shot a glance around the room as the last of the water ran out, and laughed again. “Your grandma’s gonna be pissed. I kinda broke the living room.”

James smiled.

“Dibs not telling.”

“Little brat.” Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his seat, and let out a sigh. “Now then. Let’s have a talk about what to tell your Dad.”


“Are you sure this is okay?” James asked, climbing out of the car to rejoin his grandfather. “Like, one hundred percent?”

“Yes, James,” Hideyoshi sighed. “I’m sure. Peter’s already a high level mage, and your mother knows most of the important bits. As long as we keep the crime fighting to ourselves, there shouldn’t be a problem. Now come on. Let’s get it done.” The older man jerked a thumb behind his back towards James’ house across the street, and began to walk, fiddling momentarily with the electric lock on his car key as he went. James, after a moment’s hesitation, followed along in his wake. They passed the gate, and Hideyoshi tapped firmly on the door with his knuckles.

It took a few moments for anyone to answer. James shuffled his feet; his grandfather put his hands in his pockets. Then, with a series of small clicks, the door opened.

“Hi, Dad,” Peter murmured as his eyes fell on Hideyoshi. Then he saw his son. “James? I thought you went to the movies?”

“Yeah,” Hideyoshi nodded. “We met up. Some things happened. I found the flying kid you were looking for.”

Peter shot his son a glance at that, before giving Hideyoshi a glare.

“Flying kid?” he asked. “Not sure what you m-”

“Dad,” James muttered, his cheeks growing rather warm. “It’s me. I’m the flying kid.”

“… You’re what?”

At that, Hideyoshi chuckled.

“Just show him, James. It’s easier to explain it that way.”

James hesitated a moment, glancing around the empty street to make sure no one was watching, before lifting himself an inch or two above the ground. He stayed like that, hovering awkwardly above the porch, for a few seconds, before once more lowering himself to the ground.

“… I heard someone caught my picture when that lightning guy attacked?”

For a moment. Peter only stared, gazing down at his son, his expression utterly blank.

“… What.”


A few hours later, James lay on Casper’s bed, listening to the sounds emanating from the other boy’s game.

It hadn’t taken the older Toranagas long to banish James from the conversation, retiring to Peter’s study to hash out some kind of schedule, and leaving him once more to his own devices. Lacking anything else to do, he’d gravitated to Casper’s room, hearing the muted sound of his television through the crack beneath the door.

It was fun, at first, if a little quiet. Neither boy was much in the mood for talking.

“How’d the thing with Doctor Sharpe go?” James asked, staring absently at the ceiling above the bedspread. “She help you think about some stuff?”

“Kinda,” Casper agreed, his eyes on the television screen as he piloted his character across a field. James quietly regretted that they only had the one controller. “It was weird. Think it helped me sort some things, though. Like how weird it is when you all go Japanese on me.”

James chuckled.

“Hey. If you wanted me to teach you, I wouldn’t say no.”

“Not the point,” Casper murmured, rolling his eyes. They were silent for a time after that, before the older boy spoke again. “… Have you been avoiding me?”

“Just a little,” James replied, after only a moment’s hesitation. “You said you wanted some time so you could deal with stuff.”

The other boy didn’t reply to that at first. James glanced sideways at him, and saw his eyes still focused on the screen. Boss fight. James looked away again. A moment or two later, there was a sound of swiping metal, and the familiar trill of the game over music. Casper sighed.

“Is that why you didn’t tell me you keep sneaking out at night?” he asked, leaning back on his hands as he turned his gaze to James. “I have a radar brain, James. I notice sometimes when you start climbing out your window.”

James frowned at that. Not annoyed, really. He wasn’t entirely sure what this feeling was. The window exits had happened a few times early on; Caleb calling him out at night time, before they started organizing better excuses.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It’s why I didn’t tell you. I had Tasha backing me up, and I was giving you a break.”

“… So you gonna tell me now?” Casper asked, his voice just a fraction too casual as he started back up his game.

James frowned a little harder at that. Why did it feel like he was being made a bad guy, here? It wasn’t like Casper hadn’t been acting funny too, the last few weeks.

“Depends,” he muttered. “You gonna tell me what happened after you ran away?” In the corner of his eye, Casper gave the tiniest of flinches. He hesitated for half a second, before adding: “You gonna tell me where you got that second phone?”

“… You mean the one your parents got me?” Casper asked, his tone wavering almost unnoticeably.

“No,” he murmured back. “The other one.”

He’d noticed it first about a week ago, how one or two times out of three, Casper’s phone would buzz instead of chime when he got a text, or how it would switch pockets when he wasn’t looking. At first, he’d just dismissed it. A mild inconsistency; not even enough to stick in the mind.

But then something obvious had happened.

They’d been making castles in the hall with Bex, when Casper’s phone had chimed; a message from James’ mom about what snacks he liked in his lunchbox. That hadn’t been the unusual part. That had come when James went upstairs to use the bathroom, only to hear a buzzing as he passed by Casper’s room. When he’d peeked in through the slightly open door, there’d been another phone charging on Casper’s bedside, identical to the first. When he’d gone to look, there’d been a single message on the screen:

‘Have a good day at school?’ from a sender by the name of ‘F’.

James waited a while for Casper to answer, and when no reply was forthcoming, he tried again.

“… You gonna tell me who F is?”

What followed felt like the longest silence of James’ life, before Casper simply sighed.

“No,” he muttered. “I guess I’m not.” He lowered the controller down between his knees, and once more turned his gaze to James. “Guess we’re keeping secrets now, huh?”

James returned his friend’s gaze and gave him a smile, a little sad.

“Yeah. I guess we are.” He pushed himself upright. “… Promise you’ll tell me if it gets you into trouble?”

Casper nodded.

“Only if you promise that, too.” He returned James that same saddened smile, but it had a crack in it. “We’re still friends, right?”

“… Yeah. We’re still friends.” James climbed to his feet and made his way towards the door, then stopped. “I told my dad about my magic,” he said quietly. “He’s cool with it. Just thought I should let you know.”

“… Thanks.”

With that, James exited the room, and closed the door behind him.

If he wanted time to breathe. He didn’t get it. Only a minute after he’d made it to his room, sitting himself down pensively on his bed, there was a creak from the door as his father edged his way inside. The silence this time was just awkward as the two of them gazed across at one another. Then, finally, Peter spoke.

“So I guess you’re a mage now, huh?”

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Dissonance: 4.6

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Casper:

“So…” Casper asked. “What happens now? You gonna ask me stuff about what happened, or…”

Doctor Sharpe shrugged, sidling across to the wall at the base of the staircase and leaning against it on her shoulder, placing her coffee cup on the floor.

“If that’s what you want me to do,” she murmured. Then sure. Pretty sure it’s not, though. I know I wouldn’t want to start there.” Behind her, Peter stepped inside and hung up his coat, before moving on past the two of them towards his office.

“I’ll be around if you need me,” he called behind himself. “But you’ll need to come in. I’m gonna have earphones on to give you some privacy.”

“Thanks,” Both Casper and the Doctor replied at once.

“So,” she asked, returning her gaze to him. “How’s living here working out for you? Peter seemed to think you were settling in pretty well.”

Casper gave the woman a shrug, resting his chin on his arms, themselves balanced on his knees.

“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s going good, I think. I feel safer here; that’s for sure.”

“That’s good,” she nodded. “And you’re settling in with the family well?”

“I think so. Bex is acting like I’ve lived here forever already,” he smiled. “Kid’s a hugger. Peter and Sarah have been really nice, too.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. And James?”

Casper hesitated a fraction of a second at that, but just a fraction. James had been being weird lately.

“Yeah. James is cool. He still won’t admit how lame some of his anime are.”

To that, the Doctor laughed.

“Oh, so he’s dragged you into them too, huh?”

“Maybe.” Casper grinned.

“So,” she murmured, her voice more casual now. “Everything’s good? You’re not having any problems?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I think so, at least. I mean, what am I supposed to say? It’s not perfect, but I like that no one hits me?”

“Yeah,” Doctor Sharpe agreed. “I see your point. But there’s more to making sure you’re in a good place than just making sure you’re physically safe.” She hesitated for a moment there, then shrugged and lowered herself to the ground, sitting at the base of the stairwell in a squat. “Okay. Tell you what. You tell me the three biggest problems you have with staying here, and we can go from there to see if there’s any need to change things up a little.”

For a while, Casper didn’t answer, simply gazing down at her in thought.

“Problem?”

“… A little,” he muttered. “These are nice people. I don’t wanna complain, you know?”

“I get that,” came the reply. “But you’re staying with this family for at least the next couple of weeks. Probably months. That means that right now, these guys are acting as a foster family to you, even if it’s not official. So, I think it’s important to make sure you can make a place here.”

Doctor Sharpe picked up the coffee cup by her side, and brought it to her lips.

“Damn,” she sighed. “Empty. So, if your problems with staying here are small, then that’s great. It means good things, just teething pains. But if they’re big, then I think they need to be addressed, and I think you deserve to have some backup when it comes to addressing them, because it’s important that you’re able to speak your mind.” She shrugged. “So, what have you got for me?”

Again, he hesitated for a while before he spoke.

“… I don’t like all the Japanese,” he muttered, embarrassed.

“The Japanese?” the Doctor asked. “What do you mean?”

“… Everyone else here speaks Japanese like, really well, and I think they keep forgetting I can’t? So they’ll get like, halfway through a conversation at dinner, and I’ll just be sitting there like a lump because I don’t know what anyone’s saying.”

“… Yeah. I can see why that’d get to you.”

“It makes me feel dumb.” He shifted his gaze to his feet, hiding his cheeks behind his knees.

“That’s fair,” Natalie murmured. “And the second one?”

“… It feels rude to say.”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “I asked for this, Casper. If anyone, it’s me that’s being rude.”

Casper took a deep breath.

“The food’s weird,” he muttered. “Like, Peter works late, and Sarah went back to the university after James got a little better, and I don’t think she really knows how to cook anyway. So, like, all we eat at dinner are these store bought lasagne things? They’re kinda gross.” He paused. “Am… Am I allowed… I mean, I’m still furious with her, but… Am I allowed to say I miss my Mom’s cooking?”

“I think you’re allowed to say whatever you like,” came the reply after a moment. “And how would you want that problem to be fixed? Just better food?”

“No,” he grumbled. “That just sounds dumb. And I get it; they’re busy. But, like… I can cook. Mom taught me. So I was thinking… Maybe I could make dinner?”

“That sounds like a fair thing to ask.” Natalie nodded. “I could help you talk to them about it, if you like. I don’t see it being too big of a problem, as long as you prove you can do it safely and they keep a few of those dreaded store lasagnes in the freezer.” She shot him a small smile. “And your third problem?”

Casper considered this one for a while.

“Honestly, it’s kinda hard to think of anything else I have a problem with. I like it here. I’m happier.”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “A teenager without complaints. I should write a paper on you.”

Casper opened his mouth to snipe something back, but she raised a hand.

“Sorry. That was a bad one. I’ve had a long day.” She rubbed her eyes. “Okay. That sounds good so far. A couple problems settling in, but stuff we can fix. That’s good. How about your parents?”

“… What do you mean?”

“Well,” she murmured. “Where do you want to go from here? Do you plan on staying away from them forever? Do you want to try and fix things? How do you want this to resolve?”

Casper mulled the question over for a few moments, then gave the older woman a defeated shrug.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “To be honest, when I ran away… I wasn’t exactly planning on staying away forever. I just wanted to get away. I couldn’t stand being with them right then, you know?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I can get that.”

“But,” he sighed. “The more I stay away… The more I kinda wanna keep staying away. I mean, at first, I was angry. Like, really, really angry; just thinking about everything they did and just… All the fear.” He took a breath, spending a moment to try and let the anger pass before it had a chance to build, just as Freja had shown him. “But now, I don’t even know. It’s like… Like they just make me kinda sick?”

“Do you wanna talk to them?”

“… I dunno.”

“You know you don’t have to be scared anymore, right?” she asked. “You have the pow-”

“I’m not scared,” Casper snapped, once more trying to let his anger flow away from him. “I’m done with that shit. I know that if I went back, right now. I could call Peter, or Sarah, or you, and whatever they did, they’d be punished for it.” He reached down towards the stair below him, his knuckles rapping out an agitated staccato against the wood. “But I don’t want it to be like that. I fucking hate the idea that they’d only hold off of hurting me because they knew it could get them in trouble, you know?”

He lifted his gaze towards Natalie and was momentarily surprised. His vision was blurry. Was he crying? He wiped his eyes. She was moving forwards. Not far, but a little. When she reached the base of the steps, he felt her mind graze against the edge of his bubble. He shifted back. He didn’t want to feel her pity.

The two were silent for a time then, Natalie leaning carefully against the bannister while Casper dried the anger from his eyes.

“What would you say to them?” she asked. “If they were here.”

Casper sighed.

“I’d tell them I used to let myself go hungry at school,” he muttered, his voice tired. “Because grabbing my lunchbox meant being in the kitchen with them.”

In the corner of his eye, the Doctor nodded.

“… I’d tell Dad how much I hated it when he stopped being able to look me in the eye.” He allowed himself a hollow chuckle. “I’d tell Mom how I hate that she still can.” He hesitated. “…I’d tell her she’s disgusting… And him? I’d tell him he’s just a coward… More than anything, I’d tell them how badly I want to hate them.”

“Would you like to be able to say that to them, some day?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “To be honest… Yeah. I kinda would.”

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