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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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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Dissonance: 4.11

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys. So, I made a discord, just in case any of you wanted to sorta see what I’m like and have a chat. Might not be anyone’s kind of thing, might be kinda cool. So, yeah. I’ll leave the link here.

Kay. On with the chapter.

James:

“Yeah,” James replied, unsure of what else there really was to say. “Yeah. I guess I’m a mage, now.”

“… Right.”

“… Yup.”

For a long while, neither spoke. Whatever awkward feeling there had been in the air before was growing faster now, building more and more in the silence with every other moment. Then, after more than a minute of that ever deepening quiet, Peter clapped his hands together.

“Well,” he said, injecting into his voice what had to be the most forced note of cheer that James had ever heard. “Good talk. I’ll uh. I’ll get out of your hair.”

“… Kay,” James murmured, not quite managing to hold his father’s gaze. “Love you, Dad.”

James thought he heard a touch of sadness in his father’s tone as the older man replied:

“Love you too, Kiddo.”

At that, Peter pulled the door behind him open and stepped outside, before swinging it closed again. James didn’t look up as the man took his leave. He sighed.

It was like that sometimes, between him and his dad. They talked fine when there was nothing much to talk about, and his dad was just really to the point when there was something serious going on; but at other times, when there was stuff just going along unsaid…

James sighed again, and let himself fall back atop his bed, staring at the ceiling.

“I really wanted to talk to you about this, da-”

There was another noise as the door once again swung open, before slamming closed a little harder than it needed to.

“Okay, no,” Peter began, his tone firm. “No. We need to have a talk, and I’m not leaving here till we have it. James, why didn’t you tell your mother and I that you had powers?”

“I did,” James protested quietly, caught for a moment between surprise and relief. “I only found out about Jiji in the first place cuz I was looking for ways to tell you.”

“Yeah,” Peter replied, stepping forwards across the space between them and plomping down beside his son. “But that photo that caught you happened two weeks ago. Why didn’t you tell us before now, huh?” As he spoke, he reached down and placed a hand on James’ shoulder.

“Because I was scared you’d freak out,” he muttered back, turning his head against the mattress to look his father in the eye. “I mean, you can’t exactly just walk into your parents’ bedroom and say ‘Hey, Mom, hey, Dad. I had a dream about the rape last night and when I woke up I was flying’, can you?”

“… No, you’re right,” Peter sighed, giving James’ shoulder a little pat, before lowering himself down alongside him. James shifted across an inch or so to give his dad some room. “I guess you can’t just say that; but jeez, Kiddo.” James felt an arm worm its way underneath him to wrap his shoulders in a loose hug. “It really took you two whole weeks to muscle up and tell us?”

James thought back for a moment to what had happened before Central Park. The fight, the escape, the gun, and decided he agreed with Hideyoshi. There were some things his parents just didn’t need to know. In the end, he merely shrugged, shuffling over on the bed to rest his head against his father’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It took me a while. But it was a big thing to try and tell you. Why didn’t you guys tell me I was magic in the first place?”

At that, James heard his father sigh.

“Yeah. That would have been harder for us to do than it sounds like. The way powers work, you kinda need to be put under a lot of stress to unlock them, and that stress is harder for you to achieve if you have a little voice in the back of your head saying ‘It’s okay, my magic’ll turn up and save me soon.’”

“So, what,” James twisted around a little to look his dad in the eye. “The more you told me, the less chance it’d really happen?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” James felt his head shift a little as his father shrugged. “It’s a tough problem. That’s why you get so many parents who try and force their kids to manifest. Just beat the crap out of them until they think they’re gonna die, then stop when it happens and apologize like hell in the aftermath.” Peter let out a long, bitter sigh. “Fucking disgusting.”

“Hey,” James muttered, lifting a hand to prod his father in the side. “No swearing.”

“What?” the older man asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

“You said a bad word.” James gave his dad a scowl.

Peter raised an eyebrow at that, then let out a dry chuckle.

“Some people are bad enough to deserve that word.” James narrowed his eyes, unconvinced, before his father shot him a grin. “… You wanna try it?”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me.” Peter laughed. “The F word. Wanna try it? I promise not to tell your mom.”

“… Really?”

“Yeah.” His father gave him a wink. “Just this once. Throw a bad word at the people who abuse their kids. Just remember. I get to be the cool dad, now.”

James thought about it long and hard. This was a big step. A big step on a journey he hadn’t even realized he’d been taking. Was he really about to do this? Was he ready to take this plunge?

“… fuck.”

The word came out a little smaller than intended; quiet, as if its very utterance was accompanied by an unspoken apology. It had still happened, though, whatever the flaws. James took a breath. He felt taller.

“Good job, kid.” His father gave his shoulders another squeeze, before pulling himself upright. “Well. I dunno about you, but I’m all tapped out of difficult conversation energy. Let’s do the rest another time.”

“… Yeah.”

Peter began to walk away at that, before stopping as he pulled the door ajar.

“I feel kinda lighter now,” he murmured, his tone deeply tired. “Do you feel any lighter, James?”

James turned his gaze to the ceiling, and smiled.

“Yeah. Just a little.”


Western Manhattan, 2:14 AM:

The man in the shadows didn’t even try to dodge as Lewis swung the blade towards him, simply letting it strike off the curve of his jawbone, the edge now slightly nicked. His shield didn’t flicker. He barely even flinched.

It didn’t matter. Lewis was already running.

“You’re running out of chances to do this amicably, tracker,” came the voice from behind him as he fled, sounding faintly annoyed now. Lewis swore behind himself as he made his retreat, relying on his natural speed, enhanced by whatever gifts his mother’s genes had left him, to gain some distance on the stranger.

Once that was achieved, Lewis kept running. For seconds, at first. Then minutes. Then nearly an hour. He kept going long after the man’s charcoal tinted scent had left his nose, only stopping when his winding path finally led him to the water at the island’s edge. Then, panting heavily, he found a road, and hailed himself a taxi.

He directed the perplexed driver to the opposite edge of the city, then got out, and went to find a subway. Whoever that wizard had been, he was powerful. Lewis had to give the guy the slip before he even considered going back to the kids. He sighed. It was going to take him hours to do this right. He had work in the morning.

Lewis found himself a subway station, and hopped aboard a random train, blending in as best he could amongst the mixed assortment of night folk that moved throughout the city that never slept. He found a chair, and allowed himself to fall into something of a doze.

He was exhausted. The last of the adrenaline had burned its way through his system in his journey in the taxi-cab, and his day before had hardly been uneventful. He tugged out his phone, set an alarm for four AM, and let himself fade out in the faintly musty train car.


He awoke to the familiar piano riff, and the sensation of the ground moving against the wheels far below. His head hurt. His mind ached. Half an hour wasn’t nearly enough to call a sleep. It was barely even a breather. But at least he could see a little clearer now.

Lewis pulled himself upright at the next station, and trudged out into the nearly empty terminal. He turned his coat up in preparation for the nightly cold, and stepped towards the map along the wall. He had to figure out how to get home. He barely noticed the woman following him. The one who smelled of sandalwood.

He climbed the steps out into the street, and took a left. It was going to be a long walk ho-

A scent. Charcoal.

Fuck.

Lewis turned mid-stride in the empty street, and began to run, only to find his path blocked by a woman who hadn’t been there a second ago.

The smell of sandalwood again.

He swore, then pulled his fist back, and struck her. She didn’t move. He thought something might have broken in his hand.

He had no time to check, however, as before he had a chance to move, something vast and strong scooped him off the ground, and tossed him, like a ragdoll, all the way across the street. He landed in a sprawl in an alleyway, and thought he tasted blood.

“Who the fuck are you people?” he asked, turning his face in the direction of his pursuers, only to find that there was no one there. The smell of charcoal was stronger now.

“The time to ask that, Mr. Themps,” spoke that same disgruntled voice from earlier. “Was before you tried to run away from me. I’m a very reasonable man.”

“You’re a son of a bitch is what you are,” Lewis growled, pulling himself to his feet, and turning to face the man, once more concealed among the shadows. “Whatever the hell you want from me, you can shove it up your ass!”

What happened next confused Lewis. He felt the strike against his gut. He knew that for certain; powerful enough to send him to his knees, something viscous pouring from his mouth. Why was there no pain to it? Surely, there should be pain by now.

For a moment, he considered just staying on the ground. It seemed a little easier than standing up to face these people. Unfortunately, it was not to him to make that choice. He felt something take him by the chin, and then there was no ground beneath his form. He couldn’t think; could barely see. The smell of charcoal and sandalwood; that ever fragrant sandalwood; growing stronger and stronger in his mind.

“Now. If you’re done trying to make a statement,” the voice murmured. “Perhaps we can get on with things in the civilized manner that I’d intended.” Lewis gave no response to that, so the voice continued. “We’re going to make you an offer, Mr. Themps, and I’m afraid we’re in too much of a rush to be letting you say no right now.”

Lewis opened his mouth to swear, but felt something leaden press against his tongue. He gagged.

“I really wouldn’t, Mr. Themps. My partner and I are in a bad mood. The deal is quite straightforward. We want you to find someone for us. One man. In exchange, for the first and perhaps only time in our long lives, we are willing to let you name your price. Be it money, or protection, or a better quality of life for those two teens you care for. We are in a hurry, Mr. Themps. Think quickly.”

A moment later, Lewis felt that leaden weight ease itself off his tongue. He could speak. He could fight. This man still had him by the chin.

“… And If I say no?” he asked.

There was a sigh, before another voice spoke, a woman this time. Sandalwood.

“I’m afraid this means a lot to us,” she said. “Refusing would be the last thing your tongue ever did.”

Lewis took a breath, and closed his eyes. That hadn’t been a threat. It was a promise. Her tone had been too flat to be a bluff.

“… Who do you want me to find,” he asked, hating himself just a little for the words. “… I want to know the job before I choose if it’s worth my tongue.”

There was movement then, and he felt the ground once more beneath his feet. The thing around his chin released its grip, and he felt himself collapsing back against the alleyway wall. Not long after that, the world faded back into view before his eyes, a little blurry. His two aggressors stood there above him, quite composed. The man had a fleck of his blood across one cheek.

Sandalwood raised a hand towards a pocket of her coat and produced a zip-lock bag with what looked to be a swath of fabric stowed inside. She tossed it down to him.

“Give it a smell,” she instructed.

For a moment, he debated again what a tongue was worth. Then he took the bag, and reluctantly pried it open.

The thing inside was potent. It reeked. The stink of soap and fear and sweat, and the all too recognizable smell of sex.

The old man caught Lewis’ eye as he knelt down, before pulling the undersized shirt out of the bag, and holding it up.

“Mr. Themps,” Hideyoshi murmured, his eyes hard. “We will give you anything you want, if you find the man who raped our grandson.”

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Dissonance: 4.10

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James:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fire alarm went off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Sorry.”

James shook his head.

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

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

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

Hideyoshi let out a quiet chuckle.

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

James smiled.

“Dibs not telling.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… You’re what?”

At that, Hideyoshi chuckled.

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

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

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

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

“… What.”


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

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

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

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

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

James chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then something obvious had happened.

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

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

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

“… You gonna tell me who F is?”

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

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

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

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

Casper nodded.

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

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

“… Thanks.”

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

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

“So I guess you’re a mage now, huh?”

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Dissonance: 4.6

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Casper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To that, the Doctor laughed.

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

“Maybe.” Casper grinned.

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

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

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

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

“Problem?”

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

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

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

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

Again, he hesitated for a while before he spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… It feels rude to say.”

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

Casper took a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

Casper considered this one for a while.

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

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

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

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

“… What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I can get that.”

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

“Do you wanna talk to them?”

“… I dunno.”

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

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

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

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

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

Casper sighed.

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

In the corner of his eye, the Doctor nodded.

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

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

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

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