Care: 6.1

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys! Finally, we get to embark on arc six. This is one I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time. Now that we are here, it is once again time for the next Bonus Chapter vote. I’m trying something a little new this time. Instead of letting people vote on literally every character that has appeared in story thus far, I have selected several potential options for bonus chapters for y’all to choose from. The link can be found here, or you can just click on the Bonus Chapter Votes tab in the site menu. Until next time, guys.

Casper:

To call the silence that surrounded Casper awkward would have been the understatement of the month. Even the receptionist was staring; Tsuru was doing so with an intensity that bordered on hostility. For his part, Casper picked up his strawberry milk and drained it dry, before stepping up out of his uncomfortable excuse for a chair, and crossing the room to throw the empty carton in the bin.

He returned to his chair. Everyone was still staring.

“So,” Tsuru asked, her tone one of barely suppressed anger. “Has he fucked you yet?”

He leaned back against the seat cushion, and looked her in the eye.

“It’s not like that.”

“It’s Father,” Peter replied, managing his voice at least somewhat better than his mother. “It’s always like that. Do you honestly expect me to believe he hasn’t tried-”

“Oh, he tried,” Casper admitted. “I said no.”

“Bullshit,” replied Peter and Tsuru in unison. The two of them looked at one another. Peter gestured for his mother to proceed.

“You don’t say no to Father,” she growled. “No one says no to Father. Especially not an untrained, adolescent boy.”

“I’m not untrained,” he replied coldly. In any other mindset, the look she gave him then would have terrified him. He looked around. He still didn’t like the idea of telling them about his power, but how else to show them? He spotted a flowerpot by the reception desk, and stood, crossing the room towards it. “Plastic. Darn. I don’t suppose anyone has some flower seeds?”

He had intended it as a joke. A lame one, in retrospect. What he had not expected was for both Peter and Tsuru to begin digging in their pockets.

“Come here,” Peter muttered, pulling out his wallet and unzipping a small compartment on the side. Casper stepped towards him, and the older man shook a small selection of seeds into his palm.

“Thanks.”

With that, he returned to his seat, looked around for something suitably disposable, and settled on his half-eaten pastry. He picked it up, stuffed one of the smaller seeds into the casing, and focused on his spell.

Three weeks ago, this power had been almost inaccessible, like doing deadlifts with his brain. In those three weeks, however, he’d had the time to practice. 

For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the pastry’s exterior began to tear, exuding at first just a single flower blossom, then significantly more. Roots, leaves, stems. Casper kept going until the thing was a half foot wide, roots and creepers trailing around his hand and halfway up his arm. He could have pushed it further, but they got the point.

He peeled his hand free of the flower’s stems, and lobbed it lightly across at Tsuru. She caught it, examined it for a moment, then passed it to her son.

“Fine,” she murmured, apparently making a little more effort at maintaining some form of calm. “So you’re not a total novice. I still don’t think for a second that you could say no to a man like Father. I know trained combat mages who couldn’t manage that.”

“She has a point, you know,” Peter agreed, pressing a finger to one of the flower blossoms, only for it to begin shrinking in his hand, returning itself to a seed. “I don’t care if you can use your spells or not. Father has mind co-”

“Mind Control,” Casper cut him off. “Yeah. He does. It doesn’t work on me.”

“Doesn’t work on you?” Tsuru laughed, her voice sounding almost sickened. “Is that what he made you think? Casper. It’s magic. There’s no such thing as being immune.”

“I’m not immune,” he replied. “It just doesn’t work on me.”

At that, it was Peter’s turn to groan. 

“God, don’t you realize how inane that sounds?” he asked, his voice growing steadily louder, before Sarah’s hand on his leg prompted him to take a breath. “Look,” he muttered. “I get it. It’s like a drug. I’m guessing he found you when things were at their worst with your dad. When your life was sitting at its very lowest point. And he made you feel good. I’ll bet from there it was just easier to tell yourself you had a choice. That it was okay. That you hadn’t really lost anything.”

For a few moments, Casper simply stared at him.

“It’s a lie, Casper,” Peter continued. “You need to get away.”

After a long, long quiet, Casper finally replied:

“You really don’t get it, do you?” The older man opened his mouth, but Casper cut him off. “Shut up. You have no idea, okay? None. You think it just makes you happy? No. It’s the best thing you’ve ever felt. Could ever feel. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been, and I never want it to happen to me again!” It was Casper’s own voice that was rising now. James was stirring by his side. He didn’t care. “You don’t know shit. That power doesn’t just make you into a junkie. That stuff makes you so damn happy that you stop being who you were. You stop being you around him. You turn into some broken kind of child so horribly in love that you’d let him stab you in the gut with a smile.” He had to stop a moment there to set the memory aside. “And if you’re like me, if you’re lucky, then there’ll be just enough of the real you left inside to scream for it to stop.”

The other three just gazed at him at that. Beside him, James shifted back to consciousness with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled blearily. “Why are people yelling?”

No one answered him. After a moment, Peter dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have-”

“No,” Casper agreed. “You shouldn’t.”

“When did it happen?” Sarah asked, something indefinable in her voice.

“… The day before I came to live with you,” he muttered. “Back when the elves attacked. I’ve seen him a couple times since then.”

“Why, though?” Tsuru asked. “If you really think he can’t control you, then why do you let him in?”

Casper laughed at that.

“Cuz number one, he’s a freaking stalker. Even after I got away from him, he just tracked me back to where I was staying. And number two… we made a deal, okay? He gets to spend a couple hours with me every week, and I get-” He stopped. Why did he have to go and say that? “… Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? We agreed to hang out a little every week as long as he kept his hands to himself.”

James was fully upright now, looking between Casper and his family with a growing degree of concern.

“The hell are you guys talking about?” the other boy asked, frowning.

“Your grandad’s gonna be fine,” Casper grunted. “I got my teacher to have a look at him.”

“Casper,” Peter asked, his tone deliberately steady. “I promise not to judge you, but what exactly did Father offer you?”

Casper tried to glare at him. It hurt a bit too much to do it right.

“… Food,” he admitted. “Money. An apartment. Somewhere to stay in case I needed to run away again.”

“Why would you need to run away again?” Sarah asked, just a little hesitant.

Casper turned his gaze to the floor.

“Cuz I still don’t trust you.” He thanked the stars that Sarah was too far away for him to feel with his powers all wrapped in. The hurt emanating from James was bad enough. After a few seconds of it, he growled. “Look. I don’t need this from any of you, okay? Whether you like what I did or not, none of you were there, and everything I did just saved the old man’s life. You don’t get to judge me.”

“No one’s judging you, Casper,” said Sarah quietly. 

“Bullshit.”

“We’re not,” Tsuru replied. “You can’t judge someone for being mind controlled. None of it’s their fault.”

“So you’re calling me a victim, then,” Casper snapped. “You think that’s not a judgement? Go ahead and tell James that. See how that works out.”

The moment Casper said it, he regretted it. Once again, the room went very still.

“Screw you, Casper,” said Peter quietly. Sarah just tapped him on the shoulder.

“Go wait outside,” she said, pointing at the door. “It’s not about us. You need to cool off.”

With a mutter of something Casper couldn’t quite catch, Peter stood. Before he’d left the room, however, James’ voice spoke up:

“I want you to apologise to my parents,” he said, his own voice perfectly clear.

A part of Casper knew he should apologise; that what he’d said was out of line. But he wasn’t without his pride.

“Was I wrong?”

“I said I want you to apologise.”

Casper scowled.

“Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Peter stiffly. “… And I’m sorry, James, if that really is how we made you feel.”

At a gesture from his wife, Peter sat back down.

“You know, I really don’t care about whether you trust us,” Tsuru muttered. “Making a deal with a child molester isn’t the best way to secure yourself an out. You want a backup? Fine. I’ll give Tasha some money. I know you’re friends. Go and live with her. You know she’d die before she kicked you out.”

Casper chuckled.

“Before she lived with you, Tasha’s place was neck deep in pizza boxes. Where do you think I was staying when I went on the run?”

“The point,” Tsuru replied. “Is that there are options. Lots of options. Better options.”

“There are,” Casper conceded. “And every single one of them comes with strings attached. At least with this one, I know where all the risks are.”

At that, Tsuru snorted.

“You know the risks. He gives you gifts. What next? Are you going to tell me you can fix him?”

“Would you shut up?” Casper asked. “I told you, it’s not like that.”

“Then why the hell are you giving him a chance?” she asked. “You know he’s dangerous. You admit he’s tried to molest you-”

“Wait, what!?” James interjected, shaking Bex momentarily from her doze. Tsuru ignored him.

“-And yet you’re still set on having him in your life. Why, Casper?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply. He closed it again. They were staring at him; James on the verge of panic. He felt small.

“… He saved my life,” he said quietly. “Back when the elves attacked. I was with some guys, but we got separated. One of them cornered me.”

“It was you,” Peter murmured in a voice of sudden realisation. “You’re the boy that Theo and Kym ran into. The one who nailed the female with a flash grenade.”

“Yeah. But afterwards, she came after me. Her birds were tearing me apart. I think she was gonna make them eat me.” Casper sniffed. “And then Father stabbed her in the gut. He saved me.”

“You don’t owe him anything,” Tsuru growled. “Take it from someone who’s just as powerful as he is, saving a kid from being cornered by a monster doesn’t make you a saint. It just makes you not as bad as you would have been if you stood there and let them die. It doesn’t cost him anything, and so you owe him nothing.”

“… Well, I don’t see it that way.”

Tsuru let out a huff.

“Of course you don’t.”

For a time, the conversation ended there. Then Casper voiced the one thought that had been nagging at him for weeks.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, though?” he asked. “Cuz you look at him there, with all those other kids, and it’s so obvious he’s trying to be good. Doesn’t it hurt you at all?”

The look that Tsuru gave him then was hard.

“There are plenty of good men in the world, Casper. But most of them don’t fuck kids.”

The silence that followed that was a good deal shorter.

“How did you know where my father was?” Peter asked. “You told him exactly where to go.”

Casper snickered.

“I think I’ve told you enough secrets for today.”

When Father finally returned to the waiting room, the atmosphere was tense. Everyone besides Casper turned to look at him, the level of disgust ranging from face to face. For his part, Father simply ignored them.

“I’ve repaired everything I can,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s far from perfect. Some of the tissue was too burned to be brought back. There will be scars. And there was some damage to the spinal cord that I lack the-” he searched for the word. “-Let’s call it the dexterity to account for. He might find his legs a little stiff from now on. Other than that, he’s healing. Give him a few days to rest, and he should find his feet.”

“Thank you,” Casper said, refusing to meet anyone else’s gaze.

“What’s the price?” Tsuru asked. “What did Casper have to promise you to make you agree to this?”

Father sighed.

“There wasn’t a price, Tsuru. I couldn’t just stand there while one of Earth’s defenders lay dying. Even were that not the case, I’m not going to extort a boy just for trying to help a friend.”

Tsuru turned to Casper, waiting for a contradiction. None was offered.

“… Thank you,” she muttered. “For saving my husband’s life.”

Previous Chapter:

Interlude: Casper Sullivan

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Manhattan Island, Four Twenty Seven AM:

Of the many hospitals dotted across the eastern seaboard, there were few quite as storied, or as well regarded, as Mount Sinai. The place was huge, well equipped, and had doctors and nurses ready and waiting to handle whatever New York had to throw at them.

But Hideyoshi Toranaga had a three inch hole in his gut. It was a small miracle that he had even lasted long enough for the emergency response team to see him to the surgery.

As of this moment, Hideyoshi had been in surgery for hours. Every time a member of the medical staff came in or out of the waiting room, they looked increasingly grim.

Casper sat by his friend in the quiet, trying to piece together just what was going on. James had bags under his eyes. He wasn’t speaking. Every time he moved, his fingers seemed to shake. Casper was worried.

He hadn’t pushed; not even a little. When he’d woken up last night to the sound of Tasha flicking pebbles at his window, he hadn’t questioned it. When he’d opened up that window, only for her to scale the wall and pass a barely conscious James into his custody, he hadn’t asked. He’d simply escorted the other boy back to his room.

He was trying to be patient.

Now, however, as he sat there, listening to the emotions coursing through his friend’s mind; watching the grown ups talk quietly on their even grimmer side of the room; he found he couldn’t hold it back.

“… Hey,” he muttered, elbowing the other boy gently in the side. “We promised, remember? If we ever got into trouble bad enough we couldn’t fix…” he let the sentence hang. No need to press the point.

For a few moments, James didn’t respond. Casper could feel the shame and dread rattling around inside his skull, no doubt going in circles.

Eventually, his friend shook his head.

“No,” he mumbled, his voice a little croaky. “Every time I ask for help, it just gets someone hurt. What if I got Jiji killed?” he sniffled. “How could you help, anyway? You’re just a kid, like me.”

Casper rolled his eyes, and reached over to bonk his friend in the noggin with his knuckles.

“It’s not about whether I can help, you doof. It’s about being there when I know you need a hug.”

“I don’t need a hug,” James muttered, his cheeks going slightly red. “Anyways. If I did, I’d ask Tasha. She gives better hugs than you.”

“Oof,” Casper replied, prodding his friend gently in the ribs. “That smarts. Going for the nuts already?”

“… Maybe.”

For a moment, neither spoke.

“So, you’re really not gonna tell me anything, huh?”

A moment’s hesitation. That sense of guilt momentarily deepening in James’ mind as he shook his head. Casper sighed. 

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I figured.” He turned his gaze across the room towards where Bex sat, half asleep on Sarah’s knee, and raised his voice. “Hey, Bex. Your brother needs a hug and he’s too wimpy to let me do it. Can you come over here a sec?”

Slowly, with a gentle prod or two from her mother, the semi-conscious girl pulled herself up off of Sarah’s lap, and crossed the waiting room to her brother. James glared darkly at Casper as Bex positioned herself on his lap.

Casper didn’t care about that too much. All he cared about was that as James’ sister began dozing against his chest, the pain in his head began to dim, even if only by a little. Less than half an hour later, both James and Bex were fast asleep.

The adults were still keeping to themselves. Casper did likewise. He sat back in his uncomfortable chair, closed his eyes, and stretched his power out.

If he reached as far as he could go, he found the very edges of his field could touch the inside of the surgery room. There were minds he recognized, there; some he didn’t, too. A few frazzled staff members passing from the observation room, to the waiting room and back, all amidst a swarm of other routes, no doubt distracted by a dozen different tasks. The mind of Hideyoshi, muddled by a fog of anaesthesia. The minds of those who operated on him; all worry subsumed by an almost adamantine focus.

That last one was almost soothing.

Minutes passed this way. Maybe hours. It was hard to tell. He found himself gauging time by Peter’s habitual laps around the room.

Then, one of the staff members came out to meet the grown-ups, his mind somber. Casper kept his eyes closed, his ears pricked.

“-not going well,” the man was saying. “I think I need to talk with you in private.”

A rustling; a few snatches of conversation too quiet for him to hear, then the feeling of Sarah’s mind stepping briefly closer to him.

“Casper, are you awake?”

“Yeah,” he murmured, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Look after James and Bex, okay? We need to go and talk to the doctor.” He nodded, then felt a hand squeeze his wrist. “Thank you for being here for them. It really helps.”

He feigned a smile.

“Any time.”

As the clustered adults all stepped away, Casper let his mind follow them. Of the older members of James’ family, Sarah’s mix of worry and familial concern was the only one that played particularly true to him. For his part, Peter’s mind at least made sense; a layer of focus and intensity, sitting firmly over a roiling mass of fear. What really struck Casper out, however, was Tsuru. There was no anxiety there. Just a mournful kind of acceptance. He found it troubling, how little her mind seemed to run from the pain. How could she seem so comfortable like that, when the mere proximity of those feelings was enough to make his heart shake?

The four of them found an empty room a short way away, and Casper heard a momentary snatch of conversation, before the door clicked shut behind them.

It was aggravating, Casper thought. All of it. Trying to help when no one around would tell him anything. He opened his eyes, and swore quietly to himself.

The waiting room had a reception desk, apparently doubling as something of a dispensary. The lady working the counter gave him a sympathetic sort of look. He leaned his head back against the wall, and tried to let it go.

He failed.

“Hey,” he called to the one remaining staff member. “Is there like, a cafeteria or something? I kinda wanna get these guys some food.” He gestured at James and Bex, still snoozing gently in one another’s arms. “We’ve been here for a while.”

At that, the woman simply smiled.

“Down the hall to the left,” she murmured, leaning out past the counter and pointing out a path for him to follow. “There’s a stairwell that takes you to the third floor. You should be able to find them something there. You need me to call ahead for a coupon?”

“Yeah. Please.” He stood, his legs a little stiff. “Can you watch these guys while I’m gone?”

“Won’t take my eyes off them for a second, dear.”

“Thanks.”

He headed out into the hall, but did not go straight for the cafeteria. Instead, he walked until he was out of the lady’s sight, then took a right, heading for the room where all the adults were gathered.

Empty hallway. Good. The blinds on the door were closed. He tried listening at the door. No dice. All of them spoke too quietly.

Casper thought for a moment, then had an idea. There was a water dispenser a short way away, a plastic tube running along the side, full of plastic cups. He took a cup, then inverted it, and pressed it against the door. That carried the sound through a little better. He put his ear against it, and listened.

“— Severe damage to the liver and portions of the intestine, along with arcing burns to his kidneys, stomach, and lungs. I wish I could give you a more hopeful prognosis, but honestly, we’re struggling just to keep the man alive.”

“We already have a specialist heading in from L.A,” replied Peter’s voice, his tone mechanically calm. “What are his odds of surviving the next two hours?”

A pause.

“Not great. You asked for honesty. I’d give him fifteen percent odds of making it that long. Maybe less. Is there a chance you can make a portal?”

It was Tsuru’s voice that answered there, her own voice simply tired.

“New York’s portal maker is currently MIA,” she replied. “No available teleporters who can make the jump with passengers. I’d do it myself, but I’m spent. What about Caleb? The boy I brought in with me.”

Casper felt a momentary surprise in the doctor’s mind, then a diversion as his brain came back on track.

“Oh. One moment.”

The sound of paper being moved.

“He’s still in surgery. Luckily, none of his injuries were life threatening. We were able to bring him around long enough to free the other two you brought in, but he wasn’t exactly cogent.”

“I see.” Casper wasn’t sure he’d ever heard anything as tired as when Tsuru said those words.

A long quiet, then the doctor let out a sigh.

“Look,” he murmured. “We can keep his heart beating; artificially, if need be. We can keep his brain oxygenated. Hopefully, that will be enough for your specialist to work with, but I cannot say for sure.”

Casper stepped away from the door. He didn’t need to hear any further; the feel of the minds through the door said enough. He deposited the cup in a waste bin, and headed down the hallway towards the cafeteria. He might as well get the others some food.

He dipped a hand into his pocket as he walked, and pulled out his phone.

For a moment; For just a moment, Casper wondered if it was worth it.

Then, he remembered the agony playing around in his best friend’s brain.

He opened up the contacts list, pressed his thumb to the only name, and made the call.

Even this early in the morning, the man answered within the first few rings.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Father,” said Casper quietly. “I need to ask a favor.”


Manhattan Island, Five Thirteen AM:

Neither of the other two had roused by the time Casper returned to the waiting room, laden down with chocolate pastries and a three-pack of strawberry milk. He spent a moment weighing their probable hunger against the pressing need for sleep, and decided to let them rest.

He sat back down beside them, tore open the packaging on one of the pastries, and took a bite. Amazing; the thing had zero flavor. How did they manage to produce chocolate that didn’t have a taste?

He took another bite.

He didn’t respond when the adults shuffled their way back in, his only action being to pull one of the milk cartons out for a drink. It was no better than the pastry.

Where the adults had previously spoken quietly among themselves, now, they simply sat. He found himself wrapping his senses back in around himself, simply for the protection of his sanity.

There was a sound below. A door slamming. The padding of feet as they sprinted over stairs.

Casper took another bite of pastry.

Beside him, Bex began to rouse, either from the rapidly building sound, or the deceptively mouthwatering scent of chocolate. She rubbed a forearm against her face with a yawn, and opened a single crusty eye.

Casper picked a chunk of chocolate from his pastry, and held it up to the girl’s face. She took a sniff, opened her mouth, and allowed him to pop the chocolate inside. Then she groaned, her face crinkling in half-unconscious irritation, and began trying to burrow her head into her brother’s chest.

The sound grew louder. Tsuru turned her head to look, Peter and Sarah too focused on one another to pay it much attention.

Casper took another drag of milk.

The runner was in the hallway now. In the periphery of his vision, Casper watched as Tsuru’s face went from tired annoyance, to consternation, to aggression.

When Father finally arrived, he came without disguise. His form was the same as Casper remembered from the first time they had met. From most of their meetings, in fact. He was a man, today, not a teen.

Casper didn’t look at him beyond the first glance. He took another bite of pastry.

“Where is he?” Father asked, his breathing heavy. “Where’s Hideyoshi?”

“You shouldn’t be here, pederast,” Tsuru replied, her tone positively dripping with venom. “Leave, before I flay you of every skin you have.”

That proclamation shook both Peter and Sarah from their bubble. They looked to the newcomer, Sarah confused, Peter cold.

At that, Father simply swore.

“Don’t make this into a fight, Tsuru. You’re too tired to scrape a win.”

At that, Tsuru’s eyes flared. She opened her mouth to speak, but Peter beat her to it. He was on his feet in a blur, his fist arcing directly for Father’s face. The man simply bent out of the way, one palm rising to press against Peter’s ribs.

“You don’t get to use my mother’s name,” Peter growled. “Not now. Not ever. Do you understand me?”

Casper took another slurp of milk, glad that Bex seemed to have found her way back to sleep.

Tsuru too had found her feet by now. She had sparks dancing in her eyes.

Literally.

Green ones.

“If you value the twisted life you live,” she spat. “You will take your hand off my son.”

Father opened his mouth to respond to that, but Casper groaned.

“All of you shut up,” he muttered. “You’re gonna wake the kids.”

All at once, the entire room seemed to remember he was there.

The sparks stopped dancing in Tsuru’s eyes.

He dumped the flavorless pastry on a magazine table with a thump, before turning to look at Father.

“He’s through there,” he said, pointing to the door through which the doctors had moved. “Second doorway to the right. The surgery’s still going on.”

After a moment of hesitation, Father simply nodded.

“Thank you, Casper,” he murmured, before striding into the hall.

Tsuru did… something, to try and stop him, but whatever it was seemed to flicker off his skin.

In the silence following Father’s exit, all eyes turned themselves to Casper.

He shrugged.

“James’ grandad was gonna die,” he muttered, his tone bitter. “I called in a favor from a friend.”

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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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