Care: 6.4

Previous Chapter:

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.”

Previous Chapter:

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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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: 4.4

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Author’s Note: Hey guys, sorry about the late update again. There are reasons. I promise. As an apology, I am currently putting together playlists of some of the music that our main characters tend to enjoy, which some of you might hopefully get a kick out of. I’ll try and post the first of them with the next chapter. Next item on the list. The short story anthology that I’ve been linking to is concluding this week, with a couple more guest stories by TeowiMike Spivak, and Revfitz, who is the awesome fellow who got us all together for it. There is also this page, where, until monday, people can vote for the story they enjoyed the most out of the bunch, including my own submission: Rainy Days. I had hoped to continue uploading a single link with each chapter, but I kinda ran out of time. 

Anyways. On with the story!

Caleb:

Caleb followed the figures through the mall at a distance, keeping his eyes locked on the two adults of the group. Why were they so powerful? When he’d caught their scent the previous night, he’d thought that the scraps of power floating past his new familiar’s senses must have come from some dangerous mercenary commune, or perhaps a government garrison house. But no. It was a normal family, as far as he could tell. He watched, perplexed, as the little girl tugged on her father’s sleeve for attention. Just what the hell were these people?

The bird’s sense was limited; annoyingly so. He kept wishing that they could split up a little to allow him to get a sense of them separately, and perhaps determine where exactly all that power lay. As it stood, the four of them were keeping far too close to one another to allow him to get a decent read, their scents mingling so as to disguise the source of it all. All he knew was that they had power. It grated at him. He needed to get a better read if he wanted to be able to use this. Maybe if he could risk getting closer?

He followed behind them as they made their way into a game store, sticking close to the entrance and pretending to flick through a bargain bin while his bird took another sniff. The levels shifted slightly as the boy stepped away from the rest of his family to examine a rack of console games, a sizeable chunk of the power breaking away with him. Caleb’s eyes went wide. The kid? Really? He’d assumed that a power this vast would be divided among the two adults in some fashion, with the children possessing perhaps some small, underdeveloped fraction of that same potential, but no. The boy was a mountain. His familiar took another sniff, and he flinched.

There was another power now, passing close beside him, barely more than a foot away; big enough to dwarf him. He turned his head just enough to see the two teens moving past him into the store. The older of the two was a pretty boy, perhaps a year or so older than him, with his hand on the shoulder of a younger, freckled boy who looked way too tired. The younger boy was staring at him. He pretended to look away, watching them still in the corner of his eye.

Where was all this power coming from?

Caleb watched, hardly daring to move, as the older of the two newcomers leaned in to whisper something into the younger one’s ear, before letting go of his shoulder and pushing him gently forwards. As the two of them broke apart, Caleb noted the change with his newfound sense. The freckled one was normal, in a nominal sense, at least, with a power level around equal to his own, without encumbrance. That news didn’t calm him, though. It meant the older boy was another freak. Humans weren’t meant to be this powerful. It was the one thing he and his masters could agree on.

He watched as the sandy haired boy made his way towards the family, his face breaking into a tired smile as the other kids noticed his presence and rushed to meet him, their parents lingering a short way behind. The little girl threw her arms around the blond boy’s waist as they reached one another, giggling as he tussled at her hair. Caleb wasn’t even surprised now as he caught the girl’s scent. She was as strong as her brother. Maybe even stronger. The older newcomer made no such contact, moving off to the side, unnoticed.

He closed his eyes to listen as the two younger boys began to speak, murmuring quietly so as to force him to rely on his own enhanced hearing to make it out.

“Hey, Cas. You okay?”

“Yeah. I think so. Just tired.”

“You wanna talk about it later?”

“Later? Yeah. Right now, though, I just want to sleep.”

He frowned. Curious words, but nothing useful. The family was grouping up around the boy now, the girl clambering uninvited up onto his shoulders as they moved towards the exit. Caleb checked his watch with a sigh. His time was nearly up. He needed to check in with Twenty Three soon. He’d have to return to this later.

He felt a hand on his shoulder as he turned to take his leave. He glanced around. It was the pretty boy, power still flowing off of him like smoke.

“I don’t know who you are,” the stranger murmured, eyes fixed on his. “But if you do something to hurt my Casper, I want you to know, you’ll pay for it.”


James:

James set his eyes on the freshly repaired basketball and frowned, once more willing the air trapped inside the thing upwards. After a few moments, the ball complied, rising into the air a mite less jerkily this time than in his previous attempts, the first of which had almost destroyed his lightbulb. He grinned, extending his hands to it, and tried to will it ever so slowly towards him.

The ball jumped forwards at the order, streaking its way across his room and passing perfectly between his outstretched hands, before striking off of his face with a resounding snap, bowling him back against the mattress. He lay there for a moment, dazed, as the ball bounced its way happily across his bedroom floor. He brought a hand up to rub at the fresh red patch blossoming across his forehead.

“Oww,” he muttered, glaring at the ball. “Freaking ow.”

Then, he went back to practicing.

He’d rather be talking to Casper right now, figuring out what had been going on in the last half week or so of movement, or even just chilling with the guy over another bad anime box set. But no. Casper didn’t want to talk. The moment they’d gotten home, he’d just fallen down on the nearest couch and started snoring. Even after the guy had woken up, he’d been quiet. In the first brief moment James had managed to snag alone with him, he’d just asked for him to drop it.

“Look,” he’d said. “Can we not, right now? I don’t know about you, but I kinda just wanna forget the weird stuff for a while. Can you just, I dunno, gimme a few days?”

James scowled at the memory. He’d agreed, reluctantly; unable to think of a way to push the issue without acting like a jerk.

“Stupid doof,” he muttered. “Not like I might have stuff to say. I only got hit by lightning yesterday. It’s no big deal.” He gave his power another flick towards the basketball a mite more forcefully than he’d intended and winced as the shot sent it slamming off of his TV stand hard enough to make the device wobble dangerously on its perch, before he once more used his power to catch it.

“Hey,” Peter called from downstairs. “Are you okay up there? Did you break something?”

“No,” he called back, giving his best effort to force the frustration out of his tone. “Just fixing my basketball!”

“James,” came the aggrieved sounding reply. “Don’t throw that thing around in the house! You’ll break our stuff!”

“Sorry,” he grumbled.

He had to admit. This was a bad way to train. It was just unfortunate that it was also the least bad way he’d been able to think of. If there was one thing that his adventures over the last few days had taught him, it was that he needed to get better with his powers. He didn’t want to get sidelined by them again like he had last night.

He gazed at the ball, once more sitting motionless on his bedroom floor, and stewed.

It was perhaps half an hour later when his phone rang. His anger had just begun to fizzle out into boredom, and he was distracting himself by sending the air to rustle around the sides of the ball, trying to spin it like a top when the device at his bedside began to trill.

He glanced sideways at the screen, uncaring, and didn’t recognize the number. He shrugged, then picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Tasha. You okay?”

“Oh!” James breathed, relief for yet another nugget of pent up stress flooding through him. “Hey, Tasha! I’m fine. Are you fine? Please be fine. That guy was throwing lightning bolts!”

“Dude,” Tasha chuckled. “Chill out. I’m cool. I just had to punch the guy till he stopped being bullshit. Easy problem. Saw you got hit. You doing okay?”

“I think so,” he muttered. “Kinda made some weird stuff happen. I’m pretty sure I turned into a wind amoeba for a while. Better now, though.”

“… You what?”

“It’s a long story. You sure you’re okay? You got that food and stuff I left you, right?”

“Oh, shit, that was you? I thought I just stole it from some random camper. Yeah. I got it. That salami was good stuff, man.”

James leaned back against his headboard and let his body relax as he listened to his friend talk, feeling the tightness in his chest finally release. Casper was okay. Tasha was okay. Everything was good. He glanced in his dresser mirror, and saw that he was grinning. Tasha was still talking, but he wasn’t entirely sure what about.

“Casper’s safe,” he interrupted absently. “My Mom talked him into staying at our place until we can fix things up with his stuff.”

“You serious?” Tasha asked. “Oh, crap, man, that’s awesome! Hey. Tell him thanks for looking after my dog!”

“He looked after your dog?”

“Well, either that or someone broke into my place, stole most of my cash and fed Maxie a bunch of old cereal packs, and Casper’s the only guy I gave a key to my place, so, you know.”

“You mean you went back to your place?” James asked, nervous. “But aren’t those guys still looking for you?”

“Eh, probably,” she replied. “But nah. I sent some random old dude to pick my stuff up for me. I’m staying at his place for a while.”

“… Okay,” James mumbled, picking himself up off of the bed and beginning to pace as his brain tried to sort through all the snippets of new information. “But, I mean, what if they track the dog, or, like, figure out where you went or-”

“Dude,” Tasha cut him off. “Trust me. It’s fine. The guys I’m staying with know their stuff. You can chill.”

“… You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“… Okay.” He forced himself to stop, balancing on the balls of his feet, and took a breath. “Yeah. Okay. I’m calm.”

“Cool,” she chuckled. “Oh! Yeah. Also, new information. Magic’s a thing.”

James raised an eyebrow at that, gazing momentarily at the phone.

“… And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’?” She asked, a touch annoyed. “I drop a bomb like magic and that’s all you give me?”

“Heh,” James chuckled. “Tasha, I’m a flying twelve year old who controls the wind, and yesterday, I got hit by lightning. Either magic’s real, or I’m supposed to unite all four elements and take on the Fire Lord.”

“… Man, now I just wish you were the Avatar.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, suddenly melancholy. “I know. I wanna be the Avatar.”

He moved across to the window, leaning on his elbows against the sill as he gazed out at the street below. In the early evening gloom, it took him a moment to notice the other boy gazing back at him.

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