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James exited the school building with a yawn. It had been a tiring day. A good day, to be sure, but a tiring one. He glanced sidelong at Casper walking alongside him. The other boy had come to find him the moment classes ended, picking up their conversation where they’d left off at lunch without missing a beat.
“So, how’re you getting home?” He asked, gesturing to the parking lot. “My parents usually come to pick me up, you?”
“Meh,” Casper shrugged. “I walk home. It’s not too far to my place, and there’s some stuff I like to do on the way home.”
“Oh yeah?” James replied, curious. “What sort of stuff?”
“Fighting crime,” Casper replied, totally straight faced. “Me and this other kid I know. We find evildoers and beat them up and stuff.”
James snorted, shaking his head slightly. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that his new friend might actually be a massive dork.
“Like superheroes?” He asked. “That sounds fun. Do you have an evil league you get to fight? Or maybe one super smart rich guy with way too much free time.”
“Space Nazis,” the freckly boy replied immediately. “They’re like regular Nazis, but they live in spaaaace!” He raised his hands to shoulder level, wiggling his fingers for dramatic emphasis.
“Does living in space make them extra evil?”
“Absolutely,” came the reply. “These ones steal puppies!”
James let out an exaggerated gasp, raising a hand to his mouth in feigned shock.
“Oh no! That’s SUPER evil!”
“That’s not all, though,” Casper continued, his grin growing wider. “Every puppy they steal gets experimented on and added to their secret legion of puppy cyborgs. They’re gonna use them to take over the earth!”
James let out a high pitched little giggle at the sudden, vivid mental image.
“Okay, stop it!” He said, giving the other boy a gentle shove. “I gotta go, my parents are waiting.” He pointed a finger to the parking lot where, sure enough, his mother’s car sat waiting for him. “This was fun, though. See you tomorrow, Casper!”
“Yeah,” came the shouted reply from behind him as he set off towards the car at a jog. “See you tomorrow, James!” He waved behind himself in Casper’s general direction, before reaching the car door and yanking it open with a sharp tug.
“Hi, Mom,” He greeted as he climbed inside the car, catching sight of each of his family in turn. “Hi, Dad. Hey, Bex! I had the best day today!”
The response this proclamation received was not as expected. Sarah gazed at him, eyes transfixed for a few moments, before reaching out and yanking the boy forwards into a tight hug.
“That’s good to hear,” she murmured, her words masked by a slight sniffle. “I was so worried.”
Peter, for his part, gave his son a few brief pats on the head, smiling down at him.
“That’s my boy.” He said quietly.
“Uhh,” Rebecca muttered from her seat, glancing around. “Mom? Dad? Why are you being weird?”
James felt a slight twinge; a momentary regret for making his mother sad. He pushed it aside, prying himself free of her grip.
“It was really cool!” He continued proudly, determined to reassure his mother that everything was fine. “I got to talk to all my friends and handed in all my homework and then I made friends with another boy called Casper who talks about space Nazis!”
Peter chuckled slightly at his son’s words. Sarah, for her part, nodded along, rubbing at her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket as she listened.
“What’s a space Nazi?” Rebecca asked, prodding her brother in the side.
“It’s like a regular Nazi,” James replied, turning to his sister with a grin. “But it’s a Nazi that lives in space! They have evil puppy robots!”
Rebecca gazed at her brother for a few moments, before crossing her arms and scowling at him.
“I don’t get it,” she muttered. “Your friends are weird.”
James prodded his sister in the side and she yelped, giving him a look of utmost betrayal. He stuck out his tongue at her and she replied in kind.
“Now now,” Sarah chided with a wet little chuckle. “Be nice, kids.”
“So,” Peter asked, his tone casual. “You gonna come back to school again tomorrow?”
James stopped for a moment, glancing first at his father, then briefly at his mother.
“Well…” He said, his voice small. “I mean… I wanna. But, if it makes you sad, I-I guess I can stay ho-“
“No!” Sarah cut him off, shaking her head vehemently. “No, if you’re having fun and it’s making you happy, then that’s all I need to hear! I’ll be fine, sweetie, I promise.”
“… You sure?” James asked, gazing up at his mother uncertainly.
“Yeah,” she replied, giving him a brief nod. “I’ll be fine.” Without looking at her, Peter placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, his fingers tightening to give her a little squeeze.
The three of them gazed between each other for a few moments, James feeling uncertain whether he should be feeling happy or sad right now. The moment broke when Rebecca, apparently deciding she was being ignored, chose to capitalize on James’ lack of attention by launching herself across the seat at his unprotected side, roaring a battle cry and poking him fiercely between the ribs with every chance she got. The boy yelped in surprise and the tiniest amount of pain, before making his counterattack, playfully wrestling his sister back into her seat. Peter and Sarah only laughed.
The car was about halfway home, stuck at a set of traffic lights, when James spoke again, deciding to air a topic he had been debating with himself all day.
“Uhh…” He cleared his throat quietly, drawing his parents’ attention in an instant. “I umm… I was… K-kinda hoping… m-maybe I could try sleeping in my own bed again tonight?”
Almost immediately, the light atmosphere within the car dropped, both adults turning to look at him with very different, but equally serious expressions.
“Are you sure?” Peter asked, his voice set in a tense sort of calm. “We can go as slow with this as you need to, you know?” Sarah nodded, her expression set in stone, before returning her eyes to the road.
James hesitated, uncertain, but eventually nodded.
“I… I had a really good day today. F-felt more normal than I have in a long time and… and I think maybe it’s enough… You know?”
“Sure I do,” Peter murmured, his tone low. “Of course you can, James.”
“You know where our room is,” Sarah added quietly, still not turning her eyes from the road. “Come in anytime if you can’t sleep. I don’t care if you wake us up.”
James nodded, relieved.
“Yeah. I will. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.”
Casper grunted slightly as he thought back over the events of his day, slowly trudging his way home along the slightly less crowded city streets.
James was a confusing one; that was certain. His emotions seemed just as stable and happy as any other kid for the most part, but Casper couldn’t help but notice the strange flicker of fear the boy felt every time a teacher had passed his desk. Further than that, though, he’d felt James’ parents once again as they picked him up from school, and had received possibly the strangest influx of mixed emotions he had ever felt. Anxiety, relief, a moment of what felt like pride from the father and a stab of guilt from the mother. Casper shook his head. Every new piece of context he got, it just made the puzzle seem harder to figure out, somehow.
“Why didn’t these damn powers come with a manual?” He grumbled, his feet starting to stomp slightly as he trudged his way home in the afternoon sun.
“Shh!” The stranger said urgently, his voice halfway between a whisper and a command. “It’s okay! I’m not gonna hurt you!”
“But you ARE hurting me!” The boy yelled, trying to pull away with all his might. “Let go!” The hands grasping his wrists only tightened their grip as he struggled.
“It’s okay!” The man replied, his voice taking on a tone of false sounding reassurance. “You’ll see. It’ll be fine! Just hold still.”
The boy groaned and fought as a hand grasped him by the back of the head, forcing his face down onto the grimy surface of the bathroom wash station. His nostrils filled with the stinging aromas of industrial hand soaps and grease. Despite every effort, his vision started to blur as water began slowly building around his eyes.
“No, let me go!” He yelled hoarsely, trying to lift his head, only for it to be pushed back down even harder than before. “Please!”
The assailant did not respond, but for a few small grunts of effort as he pulled at something outside of the boy’s field of view.
The next thing James felt was pain. He let out a single, ragged scream.
“Shhh now…” Said the stranger quietly, his voice catching occasionally with exertion. “It’ll… stop hurting… in a minute.”
James awoke in tears, his body rolled tight as he could into a little ball. The boy was so out of it that, for the first few moments, he completely failed to notice how his body hung, suspended, almost three feet above his bed. Instead, he focused inward, trying to bring himself to some semblance of calm.
“Just a dream,” he whispered to himself in the silence, tears still streaming down his face. “Just a dream. Just a dream.”
Only when sufficiently calm did James open his eyes, noting with a small yelp how far away the covers of his bed seemed. He uncurled himself, stretching out and grasping for the tangled sheets below, just an inch or two out of his reach. Panic rising, he began moving, almost swimming, trying to pull himself through the air towards his bed.
“Come on,” he muttered to himself, trying and failing to quell his rising terror. “Just… a little closer. Gotta get… back… down.”
All at once, gravity seemed to reassert itself. James fell back to the bed with a soft thud, landing awkwardly on one shoulder. He bounced, his body going base over apex, before coming to rest on his back. He lay there for a long while, staring up at his ceiling with glassy eyes as he tried and failed to absorb the shock.
“What’s happening to me?” He asked quietly of the empty room.
Peter had never been a deep sleeper, even before his parents’ training had instilled vigilance in him. As such, the faint creak of the bedroom door slowly swinging open, its hinges allowed to rust on purpose so as to always alert him to an entry, was enough to rouse him immediately. Peter moved slowly, feigning sleep, reaching an arm under his pillow and finding the grip of his gun. He heard the soft sound of footsteps approaching as the intruder drew nearer and felt his body drawing tense in response, like a coiled spring. Taking a firmer grip on his pistol with his right hand, Peter moved his left to gently prod Sarah awake beside him. She roused with just the tiniest shudder, coming to alertness near instantaneously.
There was a minute shift of weight as the newcomer reached the bed, their breathing heavy and, perplexingly, dropped down onto the mattress. Peter allowed his eyes to open a crack and glanced down at the newcomer in the darkness. Hard to make out. He began to slowly pull his gun free of the pillow, ready to confront whoever this new assailant was.
The stranger made a small sniffling noise, their small form coming into sharper focus as they began to crawl up along the bed sheets. Recognizing the intruder, Peter immediately let his grip on the gun relax, pushing it back deep into its hiding place.
“Hey James,” he murmured, his voice quiet. “You okay, little buddy?”
The boy didn’t respond, shifting up to his father’s side and laying himself down, silent but for the occasional quivering breath. Peter let out a small sigh, reaching out and pulling his son in close, letting James’ head rest against his chest. He felt the child’s hands reach up around him in return, the boy pulling himself in tighter.
“Couldn’t sleep?” He asked, moving his hand to slowly stroke the boy’s pyjama clad back. Again, no response. He felt James’ arms tighten around him, the boy practically clinging on to him. “Okay,” he answered quietly. “It’s okay. Wanna talk about it?”
James shook his head, the movement producing a slight rustling noise as his hair shifted against the bed. Peter gave a small nod, shifting slightly to hold his son more comfortably, one arm dropping back to the mattress as the other draped over James’ shoulders.
“I see,” he murmured, allowing his eyes to close once more. “That’s okay. Go to sleep, buddy. It’s gonna be fine, alright?” Against his chest, he felt James give a small nod, his breathing beginning to settle just a little. “That’s right,” he said gently as the boy began to slowly drift off to sleep. “There we go.” Under the covers, Peter felt his wife’s hand find his own, wrapping around his fingers and giving them a squeeze. He squeezed back, slowly trying to clear his head enough to fall back once more to sleep.