Care: 6.8

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James:

Just as he had been instructed, James Toranaga took a slow breath. He filled his lungs, held for a moment, then let it out. He did so again. And again. And again.

The movies had been wrong. Wizard training sucked.

He opened his eyes.

“How long am I supposed to keep doing this?”

“As long as it takes to find peace within your mind,” said the Egyptian. “If you want to learn a spell, first, you must open your spellbook. The spellbook will not open until you are truly calm.”

James glared at him, struck, not for the first time, at how young the man looked. For someone who had been introduced to him as ‘the founding father of modern middle-eastern wizardry’, Binyamin al-Nisillii certainly didn’t seem the part. The man looked barely older than James’ dad.

“I am calm,” he replied, annoyed.

Casper snickered. James ignored him. The older boy was already putting his new shield spell through its paces, walking slow laps around the room with the barrier layered over his skin like a sheet of broken glass. With every movement of his form beneath the surface, the glass would crack a little further, fracturing itself to stay in line with him, only to slowly stitch back together when he stilled.

Traitor.

“Not calm enough,” said Binyamin. “You need to go beyond the surface level. You need to keep going until there is emptiness inside your soul.”

“… Nirvana.” James muttered. “You’re telling me I have to find freaking Nirvana before I get to be a mage?” Then, a more pressing grievance struck him. “You’re telling me this doofus-” he pointed at Casper. “-made it to Nirvana?”

Casper stuck out his tongue.

“It’s not Nirvana,” replied his grandmother flatly from her position by the wall, her eyes closed. “Don’t insult the philosophy so lightly. There is a big difference between achieving any of the buddhist paths and learning to clear your mind for a few seconds at a time.”

“Exactly,” Hideyoshi agreed. “Unlike Nirvana, this can actually be achieved.”

“Not this again,” Tsuru groaned, shaking her head against the wall.

“You don’t believe in Nirvana?” the Egyptian asked, cocking his head slightly to one side. “Why?”

Hideyoshi chuckled, the sound a tad bitter. 

“Why don’t I belie-”

“Don’t start,” Tsuru growled. “I don’t care if you’re on painkillers. I will fight you if we get into this again.”

At that, the room fell into an awkward sort of quiet.

James reluctantly closed his eyes once more. He took another breath. Casper started humming the baseline to Teen Spirit. James’ cheeks twitched.

So it continued for a while, James sitting in a quiet broken only by the continued crackling of Casper’s shield.

It was… aggravating wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and disappointing. It felt like trying to find a direction in the dark. Couldn’t his supposed teachers be a little bit more helpful?

In the end, he lasted half an hour before he next opened up his eyes.

“Okay, look,” he muttered. “Can you guys run this by me one more time, cuz I don’t know what I’m s’posed to aim for. What does calm even mean? I’m chill, right?”

Silence.

He looked around the room, taking in the contemplative look on the Egyptian’s face, and the careful neutrality of his grandparents.

It was Casper who responded first.

“It means figuring out your baggage, I guess,” he muttered. “All your crap. The stuff in your head that you don’t let yourself think about too much because of how it makes you feel.”

Casper fell silent for a moment, clearly in thought. James noted, with a touch of bemusement, that all of the adults were looking to the other boy now, each of them surprised.

“All that buried stuff,” Casper continued. “It makes- I dunno. Smoke, I guess. Bits of anger or whatever that don’t go away because you’re too busy trying to ignore them.” He heaved a sigh. “For me, it meant facing up to how angry I was with Mom and Dad, because I couldn’t get my head empty enough to do it with them pissing me off in the background.” He gave James a steady look. “For you, it’s probably gonna mean looking at how you feel about the rape, and all the stuff with me and Caleb.” A half second’s hesitation. “And being gay.”

“… Ok,” James said quietly. “Then what? What am I meant to do with that?”

“I dunno,” Casper made a non-committal gesture with his hands. “Just let it burn itself out for a couple minutes so you don’t have so much background noise.”

“Huh,” Tsuru grunted. “So Freja trained you, did she?”

Casper groaned.

“Okay. First Father, now you. How does everyone know who my secret magic teacher is?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“She helped me on a job a few decades back. She’s a good enchanter. And she’s the only person in New York who teaches the meditations that way.” She chuckled. “It’s not exactly popular. Most people don’t even know where half their crap is buried, let alone being willing to dig it up again.”

“That sounds like a lot,” James muttered. “Do I have to?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, but the Egyptian cut him off.

“No,” he said, a trace of reassurance to his tone. “Doing the meditations that way is rare, as your grandmother says, and unfortunately, the way that works best for one person may not work so well for others. After all, if it were consistent enough to be taught the same way to everyone, we would have put it in the school system. As it stands, all a teacher can really do is tell their students how they managed it, and hope they can find the path themselves.” He shrugged. “The process takes time, and is highly individualized.”

“So how long’d it take you?” James asked. 

“Three weeks,” came the reply. “Give or take a day.”

James looked to his grandmother. She smiled.

“Four days,” she said, her tone slightly smug.

James turned to Hideyoshi. The old man shot his wife a glare.

“… Winter,” he admitted.

James’ heart sank like a rock. He turned to Casper. The other boy was looking to the older mages, apparently confused.

“And you?” James asked.

Casper shrugged.

“Like, an hour or two, I think? I didn’t have a phone on me.”

“Liar,” Tsuru muttered. “How?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess I did kinda cheat.”

“You can’t cheat,” Tsuru snapped. “It’s magic. The rules are fixed. You can’t-” She cut the words off, and forced herself to take a breath. “I’m not sure I like you, Casper.”

James just shook his head. None of this was helping. He put his face against his hands, let out a small groan, and shook himself.

Don’t waste time getting angry. Just get it done.

He took a breath, and closed his eyes.

Right.

Casper had gotten his meditations done the quickest. James would try his way first.

Okay. Just face up to all my crud. Can do.

He took another deep, steadying breath, and started to dig inside his head.

Okay. Obvious stuff first. I was raped.

He spent a few moments looking at that knowledge inside himself. It felt… awkward.

Okay. Now what? Am I supposed to think super hard about it, or what? Casper said just let the emotions burn out for a while. Are there emotions there? I mean. It hurts to think about, I guess.

Some small part of him snickered.

Dude, you had nightmares about it for weeks. You still freak out about it sometimes. That’s more than just ‘I guess it hurts.’

James scowled.

Okay, fine. It hurts, but I’m stronger now, right? I saved Tasha. I beat up Father. He’s like, the final boss of pedos. I bet no one could even touch me if I didn’t want em to.

Somewhere inside him, his inner critic rolled his eyes.

Then why are you scared of liking guys?

James didn’t flinch. It was more frustrating at that point than anything else.

Cuz it hurt. Duh.

Doesn’t mean it has to hurt with someone else.

James rolled his eyes for real this time.

It’s butt stuff. It’s always gonna hurt.

… You sure about that?

“Yeah,” James groaned. “Pretty sure.”

I mean, grown ups seem to like it. Maybe you should ask someon-

I’m not asking anyone. Ever.

… Yeah. Fair enough.

“You doing okay?” Casper asked. “You keep talking to yourself.”

“Shut up,” James muttered, not opening his eyes. “My inner me’s being a dork.”

I am not.

Yes you are.

James couldn’t help smiling a bit at that. Then, he sighed.

Besides. It’s not like I even know for sure I’m gay.

The inner James shook his head.

You’re pretty gay, dude.

Since when?

Inner James smiled.

Since Charlie.

… Shut up.

Remember when you were playing cards? His other self asked. You totally wanted to smooch him.

James went slightly red.

Did not.

His inner self was laughing now.

Then there was that time you freaked out about Caleb’s abs and he totally noticed.

His cheeks began to burn.

He didn’t see that, he defended. I played it cool.

His inner self laughed even harder.

Who’s next? it asked. You gonna have a thing for Casper too? Cuz I’m pretty sure he’s into Father.

Whatever humor James had been nursing inside his soul died at that. His inner argument went still. He opened his eyes.

“This isn’t gonna work,” he muttered, not sure if the realization made him frustrated, or simply sad. “Getting hurt. Liking boys. I can deal with that stuff all day long, but I’m still not gonna be calm.” He gave Casper a look; not quite judging, but almost. “All of that’s just small potatoes, cuz right now, my best friend’s been kidnapped, and my other best friend’s been hanging out with Father. I don’t know how to let that stuff go.”

Casper held his gaze for a time, then shook his head, and sighed.

“You don’t need to worry about me so much, you know? I’m not dumb. I can take care of myself.” He chuckled. “I’ve made it work so far, haven’t I?”

“It’s Father,” James replied flatly. “Either he’s gonna hurt you, or he’s just gonna take you away. I’m never gonna be okay with that.”

Casper sighed.

“Fine. Whatever,” he muttered. He shot a glance at Tsuru. “I’m going outside. It’s too cramped to practice moving my shield around in here. I can still use magic as long as I stay in this part of the hospital, right?” 

Tsuru nodded.

Casper turned to leave. On his way out, he gave a parting comment.

“A little trust’d be cool, James.”

James groaned.

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” he replied. If Casper heard the words at all, he ignored them. James raised his voice. “It’s the magic super molester.” Casper definitely ignored him on that one.

James shook his head.

“Okay, so Casper’s way isn’t gonna work. What next?”

For a moment, the grown ups looked between themselves; then the Egyptian spoke.

“I can guide you through my own approach, if you would like.”

“Sure.” James nodded. He took one more glance at Casper’s form retreating down the hall, then slammed the door with a gust of wind. “I’m all ears.”

Binyamin nodded.

“Alright. Well, to begin with, you should try and clear your mind as much as you can the normal way. I find it helps to focus on a memory that soothes me.”

James nodded, closed his eyes again, and took a breath.

He focused.

Something soothing. Ok. Easy. How it felt to be flying above New York.

He found the memory, placed it in the forefront within his brain, and tried to remind himself of the feelings it had held. The wind against his skin. The lightness in his chest. The thousands of window lights sparkling below him as he breathed the fresh night air.

In spite of everything, the image made him smile.

“Okay,” he murmured. “Found it.”

“Well done,” replied the Eyptian. “Now then; my path is very different from the one your friend used. Casper’s method was internal. He focused on putting the inside of his own mind to order. My path does the opposite, in a way. You are going to start with yourself. Begin by determining who you think you are, and then building out to the things around you.”

James raised an eyebrow at that.

“Okay, sure. How do I do that?”

A quiet chuckle.

“Well, first, you must begin to know yourself. I learned to do it by connecting things with music. Look inside yourself. Find all of the things that make up the boy called James Toranaga. All of the loves, the hates; the ambitions that make you who you are. Then start stripping them away, layer by layer, until you find a piece that cannot be removed. Something that you could not take out of yourself without becoming someone else. Hold onto that piece. Find the others. Do not stop until you’ve found the aspects at your core.”

James nodded. He understood… He was pretty sure he did, at least. He looked at himself; tried to visualize it, a bundle of layered ideas sitting there like a big ball of rubber bands.

Ok. So far, so good.

He looked at the first rubber band; the memory of a conversation with his dad.

“Okay, fine. So it’s not Superman anymore. So what do you want to be when you grow up, then?”

A broad grin, then his own reply.

“Lead singer of Pentatonix.”

James chuckled at that, then shook himself.

It wasn’t a necessary memory. He peeled it off and let the idea drift into the background of his mind. He kept going.

The first time he got to show off knowing Japanese. Peeled away. Flying above the forests of New Jersey. Another grin, before it too was peeled away.

The rape.

In his current mindset, the memory was so forceful as to make him flinch; his jaw clenching uncomfortably as he remembered his head being pressed against the sink; the unsettlingly vivid memory of pain.

He stepped away, and focused on the feeling of the sky. The city lights shining brightly down below.

Why’d I have to get to this one first?

He brought himself back to calm, and once more approached the memory. Almost reluctantly, he tried to pull that layer free.

A moment’s resistance, and then the memory came away.

There was a surprising rush of relief at that. He smiled.

Guess the asshole’s not a part of me. Good to know.

It went on like that for a while. Digging through memory after memory. The moment when he learned about his powers. His first day at school. The first time he got to hold Bex; that was the first one that didn’t peel away.

He kept going.

When he was finally done, he gave his teacher a slow nod, his eyes still closed.

“… I think I got it. What now?”

“Simple,” Binyamin replied. “Search your memory. Find a song. Something that fits with the bundle of ideas that make you who you are. For me, it was a string piece I heard in the home of a friend in 1692. For you, it could be any-”

“Uptown Funk,” said James.

There was silence for a moment. James thought he heard his grandfather hide a laugh.

“You’re sure?” the Egyptian asked, his voice still perfectly calm.

“Totally,” James replied.

“Alright,” his teacher murmured. “That works perfectly fine. Now, you’re going to need to-”

James jumped slightly when his phone rang. 

“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, one eye flicking open as he fumbled in his pocket. “Shoulda turned it off.”

“It’s fine.”

James pulled out his phone, and checked the screen.

He didn’t recognize the number.

He sighed.

This better not be a scam.

He accepted the call, and put the phone against his ear.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Oh, thank fuck, you answered,” said a familiar voice. “James. It’s Charlie. Look, I need you to listen really good, okay? We don’t have a lot of time.”

James’ calm broke on the moment. He lowered the phone, opened his eyes, and looked his grandmother in the eye.

“Get Charlie’s mom here,” he said. “Get her here right freaking now!”

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Care: 6.6

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James:

“I don’t give a damn if I need bed rest,” Hideyoshi Toranaga growled. “I am going to track that woman down and end her.”

“Of course you are, dear,” Tsuru murmured. “Are you comfortable like that, or would you like me to get you another pillow?”

“… Don’t patronize me, woman.”

“You need crutches, dear.” She moved to his bedside, and began pouring out a pot of tea.

Hideyoshi shot a hateful glance at the foam and metal crutches against his wall and let out a groan.

“Don’t remind me. Those things make me feel old.”

“We’ve been old for centuries,” Tsuru murmured, still focused on the tea.

“Well, it didn’t feel that way before.”

James allowed his gaze to flit between his grandparents as they spoke, one eyebrow raised. How were they both so calm right now? Jiji had nearly died.

He nearly jumped as Casper leaned over his shoulder to whisper in his ear:

“It’s all in Japanese. What are they saying?”

“They’re being weird about death,” he muttered back. “Baba’s teasing him about being old.”

“Makes sense,” the older boy replied. “They’re both freaking the hell out; trying to calm each other down.”

“They’re freaking out?” James asked. “They’re acting super calm, tho.”

“Yup.”

“… I kinda wish I had your powers.”

“Stop your muttering, you two,” Tsuru said sharply, her words reverting to English. “It’s rude with other people in the room.”

“I don’t speak Japanese.” Casper pointed out.

“Don’t get fresh with me, Casper. What are you boys here for?”

The boys looked at one another. James shrugged.

“Jiji said he was gonna train me, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Tsuru murmured. “What of it?”

“Was that gonna include, like, combat magic and stuff?”

Tsuru glanced towards her husband, who gave James a nod.

“That’s the idea, yes. Why, did you want to get Casper in on it too?”

“Yeah,” James admitted. “… Also… I wanna start today. Like. Right now.”

His grandmother snorted.

“Eager, are you? So was Peter. Well. Your grandfather’s still a little too out of it for now, but I can certainly give you boys some pointe-”

“No,” Hideyoshi grunted. “Not a chance.”

James scowled at his grandfather. So did Tsuru.

“I know it’s not my turn, Yoshi,” she muttered. “But it’s not as if I’ll be keeping them forever.”

“I’m not that petty, Tsuru,” Hideyoshi snapped. “Think about what he’s done in the last two months. He hides things, he plots, and when his friends get in trouble, he tries to handle it himself-” he shot a glance at James then. “-I’m very proud of you for that, by the way-” He looked back at his wife, her own expression now contemplative. “Ask yourself the chances of him running off half cocked to save his friend if you start teaching him the basics.”

Tsuru thought for a moment, then nodded, and looked back at her grandson, arms crossed, expression neutral.

Internally, James cussed with all the vitriol he could summon.

Heck!

“Oh, thank God,” muttered Casper from behind James’ back. “These guys actually know you. Yeah. He’s totally planning that.”

James turned around at that, appalled at his friend’s sudden betrayal.

“Hey, no fair!” he said, making no effort to hide the hurt in his tone. “I’m not Tasha! I think about this stuff!”

Casper just looked at him at that.

“I got a text from Father,” he said flatly. “He told me he thinks you’re adorable. And he says you punched him through a wall.”

Behind him, James heard Hideyoshi choking on his tea. He shot the other boy a glare, then turned back to his grandparents. Tsuru was already shaking her head, her expression stern. His grandfather was still coughing.

“Okay,” he tried. “I know this sounds bad, but I can explain-”

“The answer’s no, young man,” Tsuru replied. “Don’t make me tell Peter about this.”

“Son of a flip,” James muttered. “Look, I thought it through, okay? I was there two hours before he got there, just to make sure I had a big attack charged up in case he tried anything. And I knew he wouldn’t touch me if he-”

“You’re not helping your case here,” Tsuru growled.

It was at that point when James gave up the last of his composure.

“But he was trying to screw my friend!” he shouted. “What was I supposed to do!?”

The room was quiet for a moment then, before Hideyoshi sighed.

“No one here can answer that for you, James,” he murmured. “Youth and inexperience aside, you’re one of the strongest mages on the planet. You have people you want to protect, and the power to see it done.” He shook his head. “But you’re still a kid, and you’re messing with forces far too big for you. We’re your grandparents. We love you. We refuse to let you throw yourself to the wolves.”

For a second, James just stood there, hands balled into fists. He wasn’t dumb. He knew all of this. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to let it lie. His gaze dropped to the floor.

“You said you’d let me make my own mistakes,” he muttered.

“I also said I’d save you when I had to,” Hideyoshi answered. “This woman fought Tsuru, Caleb and myself all on the same night; while Caleb was empowered with your energy, no less. Even considering what she was up against, she managed to knock two of us out cold. You are not to go anywhere near her.”

James continued staring at the ground, allowing the words to wash over him. There had to be something he could say. He had to make them understand.

“He likes him,” said Casper. James looked around, his grandparents following his gaze. His friend looked back at him, eyes querying, asking permission. James thought about it for a moment, then gave a resigned shrug. They’d have to find out some time. Casper nodded, opened his mouth, then stopped when James shook his head.

“I’ll do it,” he muttered. He turned towards his grandparents, still not looking at them. “It’s the kid they took; Charlie… He’s not just my friend, okay?… I like him.”

A momentary silence, then another sigh from his grandpa.

“I see.”

“… Promise you won’t tell dad?”

“It’s not ours to tell,” Tsuru’s voice replied.

James took a deep breath, then forced himself to look at his grandparents, his cheeks still a little red.

“I wanna save him.”

Tsuru shook her head.

“You’re too close to this,” she answered. “Even if you were fully trained. Emotion gets in the way, and you have a lot of emotions on your mind. It’d make you reckless. You’d make mistakes.” James opened his mouth. She forestalled him with a hand. “But I can see where you’re coming from. You deserve to know what’s going on. We captured six of their operatives the night that they took Charlie. Those operatives are currently being interrogated by some of the most efficient specialists America has to offer.”

She was gazing at him now. Not hostile, but stern. He hesitated, then nodded for her to continue.

“It wasn’t just Charlie who got taken. We’ve been getting reports of people vanishing from their beds in at least three other cities outside the country. This has become an international matter. Interpol is currently coordinating between the United States and half the police departments in Europe, trying to find out who these people are, and where the hell they came from.”

She took a deep breath, then continued.

“Hideyoshi and I are well aware that this is going to be a sizeable fight. We have reached out to some friends of ours in Egypt and Japan, and those friends are already on their way to the U.S.” She paused for a moment there, her gaze steady with James’ own. “The moment we can find a lead on where these people are, Charlie’s mother will create a portal to extract him. Then, we shall lay into his captors with all the fury we possess. I promise, James; everything that can be done is being done.”

“… There’s gotta be something I can do,” James muttered. “Even if it’s just giving my powers away again… I don’t wanna be useless again.”

Hideyoshi answered before Tsuru could.

“You’re not useless,” he grunted. “I know this feels like a loss because your-” he searched around a moment for the right word. “-friend is gone, but the truth of the matter is that your involvement put Tsuru and myself on the scene. In doing that, you rescued all the other children that woman was trying to take from New York. You allowed the capture of those six enemy officers, and your energy allowed Caleb to break free of his chains with only a collection of broken bones to show for it, even rescuing two of his fellows in the process. The things we gained from that encounter will likely be what allows us to save Charlie in the end. You helped, James.”

James took his grandfather’s words and tried to absorb them, weighing them as best he could against the pain in his gut.

“… This sucks,” he muttered, wiping his nose against his sleeve.

The four of them lapsed into a somber sort of quiet. Casper gave his hand a squeeze.

Stupid radar brain, he thought, squeezing back.

Eventually, Tsuru broke the quiet with a sigh.

“I want the two of you back here tomorrow morning for your first lesson,” she muttered. “No combat magic until after this is done, but we can at least get you started on the initial meditations. As for you,” she turned to Casper. “I don’t know who exactly taught you what you know thus far, but I’ll be teaching you a variant of the shield spell; something to protect your body and mind since you’re apparently so hell-bent on spending time with Father.” She considered for a moment. “James too. For my own peace of mi-”

She was interrupted by James’ form colliding with her chest.

“Thank you!” he crowed, giving his grandmother the tightest hug he could manage. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

Tsuru snorted.

“Don’t thank me, squirt. We both know if I didn’t give you something, you’d have run off to find another teacher. I just didn’t want you running loose with Caleb’s fire glove spell.”

James got halfway through a laugh, before the image hit his brain of himself hovering above the city, his arms wreathed in emerald fire. He went very still.

“… That’d be so freakin’ cool.”

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Care: 6.4

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Casper:

Casper didn’t know exactly what he had been expecting. But it hadn’t been silence.

They’d agreed to meet up at a bowling alley, the idea spurred along by some bitter recollection of a happy family moment. Something they both enjoyed. That was the idea, at least.

For the moment, they were seated in the alley’s diner, a partially walled off space within the rest of the larger complex, differentiated only by a slightly stronger smell of grease. Plastic tables, plastic tablecloths; some acne covered teenager manning the snack counter, looking just as enthused as Casper felt; most of his attention focused on his iPod, earphones in.

His father had ordered a serving of fries. Those fries now sat between them, untouched. Neither had spoken in half an hour. Casper sat there, arms crossed, and gazed evenly into his dad’s face, counting the minutes until Ray made eye contact.

He hadn’t wanted this. James had talked him into it. The boy told him he was dumb for hanging out with a pedo just because he was angry with his folks. He’d tried to disagree. Tried to explain why it was more complicated than that. He hadn’t managed to come up with an argument.

Ray opened his mouth. Casper raised an eyebrow. Ray closed his mouth. Casper rolled his eyes.

“It saved my life, you know,” he muttered. His dad finally looked up at him as he spoke. “What you did. It helped me move when the elves attacked. It helped me stay myself when Father tried to take me. It even let me help a friend when she got herself in trouble. What you did to me helped. It sucked; but it helped.” He picked up a french fry. It hung, limp and cold between his fingers. He dropped it back in the basket. “So why am I still so angry.”

His father didn’t answer. As much as Casper tried not to care, he couldn’t help but notice how bad he looked. His hair was matted, his skin grey; a day or more of stubble sitting along his jaw. For the moment, he was glad he’d sat far enough away to avoid his father’s emotions. He didn’t want to know how the man felt right now.

Ray Sullivan gazed blankly at his son for a while, then began to speak.

“I think your mom and I are splitting up,” he murmured. There was nothing there inside his voice. “We had a fight last night. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”

Casper opened his mouth, his intent to say something cold. The words didn’t come.

“… I’m sorry to hear that.” He was surprised to find he actually meant it. “Is it because of me?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply. “She still thinks what we did to you was worth it.” Ray shifted his gaze up to the ceiling. “… I can’t anymore.”

Casper raised an eyebrow at that, curious in spite of himself.

“What changed?”

“Peter told us what’s been going on,” Ray droned. “Nearly getting taken by the elves. Nearly getting taken by Father. Your mother thinks it’s like you said. Your powers kept you safe. Maybe she needs to think that. I don’t know. I tried to agree with her. Wanted to be on the same side. But every time I try to think that way, I remember how it felt to see you crying, and my head starts screaming that all the danger you were in was on a path we chased you into.” He let out a single, listless chuckle. “It reminds me how badly we failed you.”

Casper scowled. It was odd to hear a thing like that from his dad. Satisfying wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and aggravating.

“If you could go back,” he asked. “Back to when I was nine, and do it all right the first time; scare me so much that you wouldn’t have to do it again. Would you do it?”

Ray shrugged.

“I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I’d have said yes, but-” he shook his head. “God, I don’t think I have the energy anymore. It sounds awful of me to say, but you have no idea how much it hurt to see you sca-.”

“Scared?” Casper snapped, suddenly incensed. “Oh, I know. That’s the thing you don’t get. You wanna know what my power is?” he tapped his head. “I’m an empath. Every single time you hit me after I manifested, I could tell exactly how bad you felt. I knew how empty Mom felt when you hit her.” He laughed, high and angry. “That’s the only reason I stayed with you as long as I did. Because I couldn’t get my head around why you’d be doing it if you felt that way. Then, one night, I come home, and I hear you fighting, and I figure it out. And all I can say about it is fuck you.” He watched as his father buried his head in his hands. “Fuck everything about you.”

When he’d finished saying his piece, Casper was fuming; emotion feeding on itself like a fire inside his skull. He watched his dad sit there, hands still pressed against his face, and wished he could tell if he was crying. Just to see if it made a difference. Ray’s breaths were heavy, slow. Not quite tears, if he had to guess. Too tired. Just Processing.

It was like that for a minute, at least.

When Ray finally spoke, there was nothing left in his tone. Not even exhaustion. He was just flat.

“Are you ever coming home?” he asked.

“What home?” Casper spat. His dad flinched. He sighed. “… Is there even anything for me to come back to now?”

After a long pause, Ray shook his head. It was that moment, in the end, when his father finally cried. He rested his elbows against the table, smushed his palms against his eyes, and began to moan; just these, low, wracking sobs. It was pathetic. It was gross. Casper couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

He pushed himself up out of his chair, rubberized feet skidding along oily tiles, and walked away.

“I can’t watch this,” he said behind himself. “I’m going bowling. Come find me when you pull it together.”

He stepped out past the plastic wall, and into the main area. It was almost empty, just three or four groups scattered amongst the lanes. A pair of teenagers were on an obvious date about a third of the way down, a cluster of kids and adults that bore the look of some kind of school group gathered at the opposite end, and in the middle, James and Sarah, here to supervise, just in case.

Neither of them commented as he placed himself on one of the seats, waiting to join the next game. James cocked an eyebrow at him, his expression curious. Casper shook his head. No further conversation needed.

They were partway into the next game when Ray finally re-emerged, his eyes dry, if a little puffy. Casper paid him no real heed. It was his turn. He just focused on lining up his shot.

“Hey,” Ray murmured quietly as he closed in.

“Hey,” Casper replied, uncaring.

“Sorry about that,” his father murmured. “Just-” he let out a humorless chuckle. “Just dealing with the fact that the people I love most in this world both hate me and want me to find somewhere quiet to die.”

Casper frowned. That… That stung.

“Not funny, Dad,” he muttered reproachfully.

Ray shook his head.

“Look,” he sighed. “I’m trying my hardest here, okay?”

Casper bit back the instinct to say something snide.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay.” He went back to lining up his shot, tuning out the sounds of Ray and Sarah’s perfunctory exchange of greetings. He took his go and watched, uncaring, as the ball rolled true, straight for the centre of the pins. This was followed by a momentary annoyance as the ball swerved off the track at the last second, one pin falling over, seemingly of its own accord. He shot a suspicious glance at James. The younger boy stuck out his tongue. He chuckled. 

Little cheater.

He sat down beside the other boy, eyes forward. He felt James’ hand give his own a squeeze, an unspoken care echoing silently through his friend’s head. Then James got up to take his shot, followed only a second or so later by Ray taking his place on the bench, a tired malaise radiating from his surface thoughts like an armor made of sad. Casper tried to block it out and, for a moment, was surprised that it seemed to work, the feeling fading fractionally inside his head, second by second. Then he realised. His dad was simply comforted, just by sitting there beside him.

Casper sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to come back yet. I still get angry when I think of you. I don’t know if that will go away.” He braced himself for another wave of sadness from his dad, but it never came. Ray just nodded quietly, accepting it. Casper shook his head. “But even if I forgave you, It’s not like I’d want to come back if I know you’re both like this,” he gestured broadly at his father’s dishevelled state. “Seriously, Dad. You look like crap.”

Ray chuckled.

“I haven’t slept in three days.”

Casper rolled his eyes.

“The point,” he continued. “Is that there has to be a home for me to come back to. You’ve gotta be worth it, you know?”

In spite of himself, Ray snickered.

“And here I was thinking we could just offer to buy you a playstation.”

Casper grinned.

“Well. I mean. That wouldn’t hurt.”

Once again, they sat quietly. It was Casper’s turn to bowl. He didn’t move.

“So,” he said eventually. “You heard about my stuff with Father?”

A quiet dread rose up inside Ray’s skull.

“Yeah. I heard.”

Casper nodded.

“So, what do you think?”

His dad let out a dry laugh.

“Am I even allowed to have an opinion on that right now?”

“No,” Casper admitted. “So… What do you think?”

“Honestly?” Ray shook his head. “It scares the shit out of me.”

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Care: 6.2

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James:

For the first few hours, James simply seethed. This kind of anger was a new experience for him; unfamiliar; a rage borne not only from indignation, but care. It caught him off guard; unprepared.

It started small; inconsequential, really, just a note of frustration buried under a heaping mound of concern; the little voice inside his mind asking why Casper couldn’t have just told him. Then, when Father had gone, and James had been provided reassurance that his friend was still okay, that fear had slowly but surely began to drain away. Some of it, most of it, even, had just drained cleanly out through his feet, disturbing nothing as it passed, and leaving only a faint exhaustion in its wake. Some of his concern, however, had stuck around, and as he watched his friend’s ever more overt displays of frustration, those feelings had started finding different ways to flow.

It was when they were finally allowed in to see his grandpa that James realised he had to punch something.

Preferably something with a picture of Casper’s face on the front.

‘How could he be so. Freaking. Dumb?’

For his part, Casper had ignored it, avoiding James’ gaze just as he avoided everyone else. If anything, that just made the anger worse.

When they got home, there was no talk of going to school. School stopped being a thing during emergencies, apparently. The morning was spent with the three of them clustered together on the couch; watching a perpetual parade of Disney movies under his mother’s sporadic supervision; observing out of the corners of their eyes as a stream of sombre adults came in and out of the house, clad in suits and casual clothes alike, arguing quietly in the background. In that environment, even Bex somehow managed to be terse.

Some of the adults were more notable than the rest. A teacher from school, worry drawn in bold across her face, some folks from Peter’s office; even Charlie’s mom, looking more ragged and unkempt than James had ever seen her; a pair of deep shadows set beneath her eyes. He gave her a hug.

No one commented when Casper’s dad arrived. Peter went to meet him on the street, still not willing to let him in the house. James watched out of the corner of his eye as the men talked; Ray’s sporadic glances through the window at his son going from sad to mortified. Casper kept his eyes fixed on the TV, his eyes a little glassy. James tried to let his anger go at that. He did not succeed.

It was perhaps an hour or so after that when James decided he was done. He just couldn’t keep it all inside him any more.

He waited just long enough for Sarah to step back in, seating herself within cuddling range of Bex, before he spoke, his voice quiet.

“We can have this fight here, or we can do it in my room. Your call.”

Both Bex and Sarah turned their gaze to him at that, his sister confused, his mother carefully neutral. Casper didn’t move.

‘…Fine. We’ll do it here.’

James opened his mouth to speak. Before he got the first word out, however, Casper pushed himself off the couch, muttering something that could have been a curse, before stepping out towards the hall.

“C’mon,” he muttered. “Let’s just get it over with.”

The two of them moved through to James’ room in silence, neither of them wanting to be heard. When they eventually arrived, James found himself sitting on his bed, his hands balling into fists between his legs. For a while, Casper paced, moving from place to place around the room in search of somewhere comfortable, before coming to rest against the door, glaring at the floor beneath his feet.

“Well?” the older boy asked, his voice almost venomous. “Let’s hear it. Go ahead. Let yourself feel all smart by telling me I’m wrong.”

James looked across at him. In themselves, those words stung more than he thought they would. They felt wrong, coming from Casper’s mouth.

He didn’t reply. He tried to, but he couldn’t work out how. He wanted to yell. He wanted to cry. When he didn’t speak, Casper simply glared at him.

Minutes passed like that. Maybe longer. What the heck was he supposed to say?

In the end, it wasn’t finally reaching a decision that spurred James to speech; it was Casper letting out a little growl, and grabbing for the door handle.

It was just as he pulled the door open that James spoke, his voice quiet.

“I think… I think I’m gay.”

Casper stopped moving halfway out the door. Then, he swore quietly to himself, and stepped back inside the room. He closed the door behind him, then slumped to the floor on his rear.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I know.”

James sniffed. “It’s terrifying.”

“Why?”

“Cuz every time I think about a boy I like-” he swallowed. It did nothing at all to rid him of the lump inside his throat. “It… It makes me remember the stuff that happened. It makes me think about how scared I was. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“… Yeah.”

What came next was the hardest sentence James had ever had to say. “I-… There’s this little bit of me that thinks… Maybe if he never touched me; maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. Maybe we’d be talking about girls right now.”

Casper shot him a scowl. There was less anger to it, now. Just a little.

“You know that’s not how it works, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” James wiped his nose with a sleeve. “I still think it sometimes, though.”

For a while, the two of them were quiet. When Casper spoke, his tone was far softer.

“I’m sorry I pushed you about that,” he said. “I really am.”

“Yeah, sure,” James replied. “It’s done now, anyways.” He took a breath, then gave his friend a cold look. “So, what the heck is going on with you and Father?”

At that, Casper just groaned.

“I don’t even know,” he muttered. “I think he’s trying to seduce me? I don’t think he’s had many people say no to him before.”

“But why are you letting him try?”

Casper shrugged.

“Like I said to your grandma. He’s almost good, you know? He wants to help. I think he really thinks he is helping… I dunno. I just wanna find out how he got so broken.”

James shook his head.

“Why do you care?”

Casper sighed.

“Cuz I want him to be better.”

James cocked his head at that. Something in the phrasing felt odd.

“You don’t… You don’t like him, do you?” Casper didn’t respond, his cheeks flushing slightly. James shuddered. “Cas, that’s just wrong.”

“It’s not like what you’re thinking,” Casper replied. “He-… When he used his mind control thing… It made him look… pretty. Like, really, really pretty. That never really went away. And it’s… I dunno. It’s weird, when you can feel that someone likes you, you know? It’s like…” he looked across at James’ face, and must have registered the disgust written plain as day across it, because he raised a hand in a weird, semi-placating gesture. “Look, I was never gonna act on it, okay? I’m not stupid. I’m never gonna let him get that close, and I’m not gonna give him that chance to take over. I don’t trust him. I’m never gonna trust him.”

James didn’t know what to say to that. It made him want to throw up. For a while, he simply stared.

“If I asked you,” he said eventually, his voice almost pleading. “As your friend, to break it off… Would you do it?”

Casper’s gaze shifted to the floor.

“… Yeah, probably.” James opened his mouth at that, but the other boy forestalled him. “Look, I know this sounds wrong, and I get that you’re worried, but-”

“Really, Cas? Cuz it sounds like a total creeper’s trying to make you like him, and it sounds like it’s working. You can’t make that not sound wrong!”

Once again, Casper groaned.

“What would it take to make you be okay with this?”

“I’d be okay with it if you told Father you never wanted to see him again.” James thought about it for a moment. “And then he moved to Seattle. And stopped existing.”

He wasn’t quite sure why the words made Casper laugh.

“Look,” he said. “You’re right. I could break it off. Maybe I even should. But I don’t want to, and even if I did, I don’t think it’d make him stop. You haven’t seen inside his head. He’s pretty determined.”

“… You know that doesn’t make it any better, right?” James asked. “I mean, I get it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t make it okay. I think we’re messing with stuff way, way bigger than we are.”

Casper snorted.

“It’s hard not to when the big stuff follows you home.”

James snickered.

“I know, right?” He slumped backwards at that, letting his body flop down across his mattress and gazing at the ceiling. “… You know what the biggest thing I learned today is?”

“No idea,” said Casper. “What?”

“That I don’t really know you anymore, do I?” He looked down just in time to see the older boy shrug.

“Sure you do. I’m the same me I always was.”

James rolled his eyes.

“Okay, sure. But, like, I don’t know what you can do now, do I? I mean, when I said you couldn’t help at the hospital, I meant it. But then off you went and you-” he made a grappling gesture in the air with his hands. “-You helped, you know? I had no idea you could do that.”

“Dude,” Casper chuckled. “I know you didn’t mean it that way, but ouch.”

James ignored him.

“My point is, I didn’t know you could help me cuz of secrets. So, maybe secrets suck. And maybe, if we get rid of them, we can help each other more.”

The silence that followed lasted a long while. When Casper finally responded, he did so with a sigh.

“So that’s the deal, huh?” he asked. “No more secrets? You’re gonna tell me your side too?”

James nodded.

“Yeah. That’s the deal.”

“You promise not to freak out?”

“Only if you promise too.”

A snort.

“Yeah,” said Casper. “I promise.”

The older boy closed his eyes. After a second or two, so did James, relaxing back against his bed.

“… So,” he murmured. “Who goes first?”


Father:

Father looked up at the side of the building, and for the second time that night, pulled out his phone to check the address.

‘They’re making it hard to come and see you. Can we meet up tonight?’

He scrolled past the first of Casper’s messages, and onto the time and place. He frowned.

Well, it was certainly the right location. But why in the name of all had Casper wanted to meet him here? And at one AM, no less. He shook his head. Perhaps it was some effort to keep the boy’s caretakers off his tail. He supposed he’d soon find out. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and stepped inside.

The place was positively derelict; dry rot and summer baked mildew stains crawling across cracked concrete walls, the floor covered in layers of detritus left behind by generations of either vagrants, or teenagers using the place as a hideaway. Father cast a cursory glance over the lower floor; empty, but for a rusted through freight elevator, and a set of industrial steps leading to the second level. No one in sight.

“Casper,” he called, letting the door slide to a close behind him and stepping towards the stairs. “You around? I know I’m a bit early.”

It was around when he caught sight of the steel production table that currently sat wedged above the staircase, the heavy metal handrails warping into a glove around it, that he received a reply.

“He’s not here,” called a voice; young, male, unfamiliar. “Come on up. I wanted to talk to you alone.”

Father raised an eyebrow at that. Strangeness upon strangeness. He paused at the foot of the stairs, and tapped his foot lightly on the floor. The spell that followed was something like a pulse; a wave of perception that pushed itself first across the floor, then out into the superstructure like a sonar burst. A second later, he had the rough layout of the place.

The floor above was open-plan; nothing but work stations from side to side of the complex, barring a small cluster of rooms to one corner that had once been either offices or storerooms. One of those rooms held life; the pulse flowing up through a pack of what felt like rodents. On the roof above, he could feel something human sized. He raised an eyebrow at that. It was odd. The voice had come from the factory floor, yet his spell said the area was empty. Was the person on the roof projecting themselves?

He took a moment to ready a barrier, then proceeded up the stairs. He found the answer to his confusion soon enough.

‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Not projecting. Flying. No surfaces for the spell to move through.’

The speaker was a boy; a familiar one, too, shaggy black curls framing an almond shaped face, his skin tone a touch more olive than the standard post-european hue. A petite frame and slender build not at all concealed by an oversized hoodie and baggy pajama pants. Eleven or twelve, at most.

‘Cute.’

Out loud, Father simply said:

“I know you. James, right? The new Toranaga boy.”

For a moment, the boy didn’t respond, simply gazing at him, arms crossed, his face caught in an expression that wasn’t quite hostile enough to be a glare, but that Father still wished could be a little closer to a smile. The boy must look so pretty when he smiled.

“Yeah,” James said eventually. “That’s right.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” As he spoke, he resumed his climbing of the stairs, reaching the top, and beginning to cross the distance between them. He only got a step or two before the boy raised a hand, palm out.

“Wait,” he called. “I want you to promise you won’t use that happy stuff on me. Casper said you wouldn’t do it if you promised.”

Father frowned at that, his confusion touched by a momentary note of annoyance, but he nodded.

“No need to worry yourself about that. I happen to know your family would hunt me to the ends of the earth if I tried to use my light on you. Not that it would harm you if I did. Nonetheless, I won’t use it. I promise.”

He waited a moment for James to respond. When none was forthcoming, he took a tentative step forward. The boy raised no objection, so he walked to a space some twelve or so feet from the boy, and seated himself at a work-station. As he moved, he noted the old traceries on the floor, the faint sour tang hanging in the air. The site of a ritual? Yet another set of questions to be added to the pile.

He took a second to get comfortable on his makeshift seat, and shot the boy a smile.

“Well, you’ve certainly piqued my interest,” he said, his tone light. “Not everyday I find myself in a ritual site in the middle of Manhattan with a flying boy inside and someone hiding on the roof.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the ceiling high above. “That’s a fascinating power you have there, by the way.”

Again, for a while, James seemed content to simply gaze at him, arms folded, eyebrows drawing together in an oh so kissable scowl. Had Father expected him to be surprised, he would have been disappointed. Eventually, he spoke.

“I wanted to talk to you about Casper.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you won’t do anything to hurt him.”

‘Oh,’ Father realized, a grin spreading unbidden across his lips. ‘My word. He came here to protect his friend. That is so very sweet.’

“Nothing of the sort,” he murmured, raising a hand as if to wave the idea away. “I promise you. Hurting Casper is the last thing I would want.” On a spur of idle curiosity, he gestured towards the boy’s still levitating form. “So, that power of yours. Have you had the opportunity to develop it? I can’t imagine you’ve had it long.”

Another hesitation, James apparently deciding whether or not to reply, before giving him a resigned shrug.

“About a month,” he admitted. “Started training a couple weeks ago. So what is your plan for Casper?”

Father chuckled.

“Do I need one? He’s a nice boy. A talented mage. Can’t I just enjoy his company?”

“It’s more than just hanging out if you have to bribe him with a house. Is it cuz you can’t control him?”

Father sighed, trying as best as he could to push his disappointment aside. He had hoped that this younger Toranaga might not be as judgemental as the rest.

“My light doesn’t control people, James,” he replied, his tone deliberately even. “Happiness isn’t that overwhelming of a thing.” He paused to allow space for a reply. None was forthcoming, so he continued. “But, yes. I will admit, Casper’s reaction worries me. I don’t enjoy the idea that my light could cause a person pain. I want to find out why.”

“Okay,” James muttered. “Well… What if I told you. Would you promise to leave him alone?”

Father raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you know?”

For a moment, the boy’s scowl grew very dark.

“… Yes.”

“Then tell me.”

Before Father had even finished, James was shaking his head.

“No,” he replied. “First, you promise not to talk to him again.”

Now it was Father’s turn to scowl.

“Why should I?” he asked. “I’m not going to cause him any harm. I’ve never been anything but kind.”

“He told me about you kissing him,” the boy snapped. “I saw his phone. I know you asked for pictures! I know you wanna-” for a moment, it seemed like James might gag. Father waited for him to finish. He did not. He simply glared.

“I want to what?” Father replied eventually, his irritation having built itself to a peak. Why did they always have to judge without bothering to understand? “To fuck him? Yes. Yes I do. And if that’s what he wants too, then what’s so wrong with it?”

Whatever James had intended as his response, it seemed he couldn’t get it out. Father wasn’t sure he’d ever seen rage like that on someone so young. He opened his mouth, attempted to speak, but all that came out was a sickened sort of croak. Two more attempts; still nothing. Eventually, the boy raised a shaking hand to his face.

At first, Father thought he was scratching himself, a momentary concern flitting through his mind as he watched the fingers dig. Then, James’ nails found what they were looking for. He peeled the covering loose, the marks of purity and pain on full display.

“That’s what’s wrong with it,” he muttered. “Asshole.”

It was at that moment when Father’s anger failed. How could he blame the boy for judging him after that? James had no way of knowing any better.

“Oh, little one,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how scared you must ha-”

“Shut up,” James spat. “All I want to hear from you is that you’ll stay away from Casper.”

Father sighed.

“James,” he murmured. “You need to understand. I don’t want to hurt him the way that they hurt you. I don’t want anything if he doesn’t want it too. I would rather die than do that to him. To anyone. But I cannot promise not to speak to him again. All I can promise is that it isn’t what you think.”

While he had been speaking, James had simply watched him, a cold kind of anger burning in his eyes. When he was done, the boy let out a huff.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You really are broken, aren’t you.” Father took the insult on the cheek. He couldn’t bring himself to blame him. Eventually, however, James spoke again. “… There’s no way for me to beat you, is there?” he asked, trying to mask a sniffle. “You’re too much stronger than me, right?”

Father shook his head, his heart heavy.

“It makes me sad that you would want to,” he replied. “But no. There’s nothing. You don’t have nearly the experience to fight a man like me.”

James wiped his nose with a sleeve.

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I figured.” The silence that followed that was a unique kind of awkward, broken only when the boy continued: “That’s why I’ve been charging this one up.”

It may not have often looked it, but Father was a very agile man. Hundreds of years of practical combat experience, combined with physical training, and a natural reaction speed had rendered him about as fast as an unempowered human was capable of being. He dodged the boy’s opening strike with ease.

Dodging, however, was a response best suited to fists. James’ volley was closer to a freight train.

For the first half-second or so, Father was physically blinded; his shield splitting into so many fragmented shards of light that his vision was nought but bloom.

What that meant, unfortunately, was that Father lacked the context to recognize his body striking the far wall; the gust sending him through concrete, brick and steel like a bullet shot through plaster board.

What he did register, however, was the sound of a second wall crumbling underneath him. He struck the ground, bounced, and collided with something new.

When the stars finally stopped snapping before his eyes, Father became aware of the inside of a shed, the hull of a construction vehicle now wrapped around his shoulders, and the taste of blood inside his mouth.

A little groggy, he turned his face to look at the hole in the wall through which he’d come. He could see the sky now, along with the figure standing on the roof of the building from which he’d been thrown, cast in silhouette against the stars. He watched, slowly trying to pull his thoughts together, as the figure stepped from the rooftop, and dropped to ground level, landing on her feet with a thud, before making her way towards him in a sprint. He had just enough time to register a teenage girl with a baseball bat, before he found his body being wrenched from the chassis of the vehicle, and carried back outside. He felt the handle of something metal underneath his chin.

From his new perspective, he had an unimpeded view as the youngest mage of the Toranaga bloodline floated into view through the hole in the factory wall.

Even if Father had still had his senses at that moment, he wouldn’t have dared to fight. There was something about the way James hung there, the power seeping from his eyes like a mist of glowing tourmaline, that made him seem almost otherworldly.

“Father,” the elementalist called down. “I want you to listen to me really, really carefully. If you ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

“Also,” said the girl currently holding him aloft. “Just so you know. I was totally filming that.”


Author’s Note: I’m going to be honest. I am not 100% sure about this chapter. I worry that I might be presenting my subject matter in a somehow flawed manner, which I really do not want to do, particularly with issues of such real-world gravity. I hope that it’s just nerves, but if you can see what you think to be a flaw, please let me know.

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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.”

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