Care: 6.10

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Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never been a particularly subtle man. It wasn’t something that had ever truly been expected, nor, indeed, desired of him. Not even in his youth. He had been taught the opposite, in fact.

He was fire. What use did fire have for restraint?

It had taken centuries for the boy that he had been to address the severity of that mistake; instilling, over time, a passable head for tactics within himself.

Even now, however, subtlety didn’t come naturally to him.

The portal led the trio out into a snowfield, a half-mile or so from their target, and a few feet deep in the lightly falling snow. Laying eyes on the facility took time, half buried by the snowfall as it was; the search aided only somewhat by the slowly building glow emanating from the compound’s upper floors.

When the Egyptian set his gaze upon it, one arm rising to point it out, Hideyoshi simply sniffed. He extended a tendril of his power towards the place, and felt a flicker.

“Shielded,” he murmured. “I’ll deal with it.”

His companions took a few steps back towards the portal at that, their forms cutting waist-deep trenches in the powder, faint trails of lightning-light dancing around them as they first strengthened, then doubled down on their shields.

For his part, Hideyoshi’s feet left no imprint on the ground. Why walk when he had yet to recover most of the feeling in his legs? The man set his gaze upon the place. Then, he began to drift slowly upward.

Below him, his wife quietly winced. He smiled.

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never gotten the hang of subtlety.


For the few men assigned to remain on guard of the facility’s outer wall as the ritual entered its final stages, the first wave was difficult to parse as an attack.

It was closer to the birth of a star.

For the man at the gate-house, there was just enough time to catch sight of a distant speck of color in the sky. Then some buried primate instinct slammed his eyes closed before the light could finish scorching through his retinas.

The attack wasn’t something to be measured in seconds. More like frames; each one a photo in a sequence.

For the first microsecond, Hideyoshi simply hung there in the sky, the lie of that ancient form shucked from his skin. His flaming figure was lithe now; slender, and small. Not quite a child, yet eternally touched by youth.

Had they been able to look on him without being rendered blind, the defenders might have taken him for an angel.

Then came the heat.

It wasn’t flame yet. Fire takes time to catch, and all of this was over in an instant. The heat pressed out from the elemental like a wave, washing the cold from the winter air with the ease of a passing thought.

The heat permeated.

In the next frame, the air around the compound seemed to ripple, catching the light of Hideyoshi’s flame and the distant sun as though the entire building was held within a snowglobe. For its part, the surrounding snowfield had become a lake, sitting like a miracle on flat land as the powder was heated from below freezing to well above boiling.

In the frame after that came pressure; a few hundred thousand tonnes of water abruptly realizing that it needed to be a gas.

To call it an explosion would have been to undersell it. The shockwave was such that, for perhaps a tenth of a second, the landscape was held in vacuum; the weight of the sky itself not quite heavy enough to pierce it.

For the defenders in their fort, however, the results were a mite less cataclysmic. The air about the building cracked, the thunderclap of the explosion rolling over it and sending fissures radiating through the air like lightning caught in glass. Behind that injured barrier, the walls stood firm, even if the very shaking of the ground was enough to shatter every window on the compound’s upper floor.

It almost surprised him when a door burst open on the building’s roof, a single figure darting out towards the building’s edge. Strange. Hideyoshi hadn’t felt any particular heat behind that door, or from anywhere else within the building’s walls, for that matter. Perhaps it was the barrier, partially shrouding the place from his new form’s senses. He uttered a charm to reassert his human eyesight, and the image came through clearer.

The figure had a rifle in hand, eyes covered by dark, heavy lidded goggles.

Hideyoshi chuckled. At least the enemy adapted fast.

The sniper readied the weapon, took aim, and made the shot.

Their aim was perfect. Hideyoshi didn’t move, simply intensifying the wall of heat radiating from his unencumbered form. The bullet was reduced to vapor before it even reached him.

Cute.

Almost lazily, Hideyoshi raised an arm.

It felt so strange, being in this body again. He’d grown used to the feigned stoop of his older self. The slight croak of his voice, the inevitable stiffness in his joints.

The pretense of infirmity necessitated such things.

He’d forgotten what it was like to be this small: the slender god; the dancing sprite at the heart of the inferno.

His movements felt so fluid now.

He flicked a wrist, and a tongue of flame leapt across the gap between himself and the fortification, lashing at the barrier with such might that the air itself thrummed with the force of the blow. The cracks grew; his flame tearing through their wall like claws through an eggshell.

The barrier flickered. He readied another blow.

A faint crack, then a new figure popped into existence on the rooftop; suit-clad, straight-backed, and elderly. The figure was looking right at him, his eyes unprotected.

The light didn’t even make him flinch.

Hideyoshi struck again, the half-mile cord of flame splitting into a hundred smaller skeins to dance in spark and ember on the enemy’s defences.

It was at that point that the steam made by Hideyoshi’s first assault began to return itself to earth; the superheated vapor having risen up, then rapidly cooled itself in the still arctic air beyond the upper bounds of his domain. It sank back down upon them now as fog, light, at first, but building; soon to cover all below in a densely clouded haze.

The man spoke then, and Hideyoshi knew that he was meant to hear, for the words carried, despite the breadth of the gap between them.

“This is your real face, elemental,” he said coldly, the words quiet, despite their clarity. “Not some old wise man, but a monster out of books and children’s tales. The kind of demon that heroes used to hunt; capable of nothing more than holding our species back.” If his eyes had still been physical things at that moment, Hideyoshi would have rolled them. He didn’t care. He drew his tendrils back for yet another strike. Then, the man continued: “That’s why things like you deserve to die.”

There was another quiet crack, then a much louder one as, for the briefest moment, the man hung in the air just a few feet to Hideyoshi’s right, his shield already peeling away layer by layer from just the ambient heat of being so close to the elemental’s form.

The man had a revolver aimed at Hideyoshi’s head.

He pulled the trigger.

What followed bore about the same relation to a gunshot as lightning does to a spark. Instead of the usual flash of light and harmless spray of lead, his form was sent hurtling through the sky by a bolt of raw force that left a trail of silver light hanging in the air behind it. His shield split, his firelight thrown into disarray by the refraction all around him.

Enchanted bullets. Powerful ones.

Hideyoshi responded quicker than a thought, spinning in the air like a top, his hundred skeins dancing towards his foe like a latticework of death.

The gunman was already gone.

His expanded senses were enough to tell him of the change in heat on the ground below that marked the gunner’s relocation. That, in turn, was enough to allow him the very narrowest of dodges as the second round cleaved the sky in two like a lance of solid starlight.

He brought his force to bear on the ground below, just in time for his enemy to vanish once again. He let out a growl, the sound strangely musical now that it lacked the imperfections of age, and bore the gunner’s third shot directly on his shield. He didn’t try to dodge. His focus was on other matters. He prepped a spell.

He swung to face his foe again, and once again, the man was gone.

No room for error here. Another hit would be the death of him.

At the edge of the forest, the gunner reappeared, weapon already raised, thumb to the hammer.

Hideyoshi teleported.

No sooner had the fourth shot left his opponent’s gun than the elemental re-emerged. He was at ground level now, his enemy less than a foot away.

The air parched.

The gunner flinched; his seemingly indomitable focus cracking for but a second as his shield faded to a shred and his skin slowly but surely began to burn.

Hideyoshi reached a slender arm towards the revolver, one finger stretching out, ready to simply melt the barrel down the middle.

The gunner vanished.

This time, Hideyoshi didn’t feel him reappear; his exit point either well beyond the elemental’s range, or obscured by whatever enchantments lined the compound’s walls. He huffed.

Off to lick his wounds. Weak.


Charlie:

“So your grandad’s the fire dude?” Charlie asked, trying simultaneously to both peer out of his cell’s small window and stay as far away from it as the boundaries of the room would allow. “He’s freaking terrifying.”

On the other end of the line, James snickered.

“He’s not that bad,” he admonished. “He’s my grandpa. He just gets kind of intense when he’s doing good guy stuff.”

“Dude. He made the floor explode.”

Whatever James’ answer was, the loud crack as the charred form of Sebastian Grey materialized in the middle of the room was enough to drown it out.

Charlie flinched, moving reflexively to stow his borrowed phone. Not fast enough.

“… So you’re the reason they found us,” the older man muttered, his voice cold. “You’ll pay for that.”

“Wait,” crackled James’ voice, his tone alarmed. “Who-”

The sounds died as Sebastian’s fingers wrenched the phone from Charlie’s grip, his gun hand closing like a vice on the boy’s shoulder.

Sebastian’s skin was burned.

He raised the phone to his mouth, and uttered one sharp phrase into the mouthpiece:

“You can have him back when I’m done with him. Not before.”

With that, he tossed the phone aside, and the world popped out of place before Charlie’s eyes.

In the next second, the two were standing in a medical bay; dozens of people, both vertical and horizontal, spaced around it. Most of the conscious ones were positioned by the doors, weapons at the ready.

There was something glowing on the floor.

“Um,” was all Charlie had time to say before Sebastian shoved him back against the wall, and strode towards the glowing mass in the centre of the room.

“You threw the wrench into this plan, Charles,” he said, quiet fury etched into every word as he picked whatever it was up off the floor. “And I will make sure that you’re the one to fix it.”

He tossed the thing to Charlie. Charlie caught it.

It was a water bottle, filled to the brim with a glowing, oddly pearlescent fluid.

Sebastian leveled his revolver at Charlie’s chest.

“Drink it.”


Hideyoshi:

A glance towards the forest, and the fires stilled as quick as they had started. The light and heat around him dimmed to that of a campfire; barely visible in the fog. No point in leaving the landscape scarred. No doubt it was his light that had allowed the gunner such an easy target.

“Interesting enemy you’ve got there,” murmured Tsuru’s voice. He didn’t bother looking up. He could feel her presence drifting toward him through the mist; still a few dozen feet away, Binyamin not far behind her. “Precision teleporter. It’s an admirable skill, to achieve so many in succession like that.”

Hideyoshi grunted, absentmindedly pumping fresh energy into his wards.

“Weak shields, though,” he muttered. “I didn’t even have to hit him to burn them out. I doubt he’ll be capable of much once he’s out of ammunition.”

His wife chuckled.

“Ah, Yoshi,” she murmured, her voice shifting to archaic Japanese to hide the words from their companion. “I’d forgotten your voice could sound so young.”

Hideyoshi gave her a smile.

“You should do the same from time to time. The mind forgets how much more easily the body moved in youth. I find it helps to be reminded.”

“I will, dear,” she replied, crossing the last of the distance between them and resting her hand on his head. “Just as soon as Bex learns the truth. No use pretending to be mortal after that.” She tussled the flames that presently constituted his hair, her shield flickering almost imperceptibly. “I think I’ll wait it out until then.”

Hideyoshi shook his head.

“Twelve years in the body of a crone,” he muttered. “Your patience astounds me, love.”

With that, the moment broke. His words returned to english.

“The two of you finish breaking down that barrier. Get the hostages out while I deal with the gu-”

That was as far as Hideyoshi got before, with a roar of pure, panicked rage, James Toranaga slammed his titan form into the compound’s shield with all the force that he could muster.

The barrier shattered.

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Care: 6.9

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Charlie:

Charles Vance had spent a long few days unsure of what to think. Stuck alone in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and the passing attention of his wardens to distract him. Stress was too small a word for it.

He was angry, he was scared, he was tired, and his skin still itched beneath the bandages from where the base’s surgeons had laid their scalpels about his form, only barely possessing the decency to put him under first.

Most importantly of all, however, was this: for almost a week, Charles Vance had not known if his mother had survived the shot that brought her down. So when James Toranaga called to bring her in, it was almost enough to bring the boy to tears.

Almost.

“Wait, wait,” he asked, his prior train of thought brought to a sudden halt. “My mom’s there? She’s okay? Tell me she’s okay!”

“What?” James asked, his voice sounding just as frazzled as Charlie felt. “O-oh. Yeah. She’s fine. She’s been freaking the heck out about finding you, but she’s fine. My grandma’s gonna go and-” There was a muffled pop on the other end of the line. “-Just went to go get her.”

There were other voices speaking on James’ side of the phone; low voices growling words that Charlie couldn’t make out; James himself snapping angrily in retort. Charlie wasn’t paying attention. The relief was too intense. He was shaking. His breaths becoming rather shallow. He lowered the phone from his ear, and brought his forearm up against his eyes.

He wasn’t getting rid of tears. Of course not. Just scratching an itch. Why would he be crying? Crying would be a dumb thing to do right now.

“Okay,” he muttered, refusing to allow himself a sniffle. “She’s okay. Mom’s okay. Good. That’s good.”

A second or two passed like that, the argument on the other end of the phone line quietly raging as he tried to pull himself together. Then Twenty Three flicked him in the temple.

He glanced at her, confused; his thoughts slowed.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes darting towards the empty hallway as she spoke. “We’ve gotta get this done. You can cry about it later.”

It took the words half a second or so to sink in; longer still for Charlie to force the dazed fog from his mind. She was right. They didn’t have time for this. He shook himself.

“I wasn’t crying,” he muttered, returning the phone to his ear. “James. I need to speak to someone strong. We need help over here. We’re stuck, and we need someone tough to get us out. Is your dad around? Or your grandpa?”

The response wasn’t quite what Charlie had expected.

“Oh, not you too!” James snapped. “You don’t get to kick me out of this. I’m not handing off the phone, and I am not waiting in the hallway! I’m part of this!” Another muffled growl from the end of the line. James gave his best approximation of a swear. “Freaking fine! Look, I’m putting you on speakerphone. My grandad’s here. He’s super strong. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a rustling noise, then the muffled voices on James’ side grew louder; each of them distinct.

One of them was speaking now; a male voice that Charlie vaguely recognized as James’ grandpa.

“I don’t care if you’re attracted to this boy, James. You’re not allowed to dictate who he talks to. That’s exactly the kind of rash decision making that proves you shouldn’t-”

“Jiji!” James snapped, his voice pitching rapidly towards a squeak. “He can hear you!”

Charlie had roughly half a second to process the knowledge that his best friend liked him before the older man continued.

“He can hear me? Good. Charlie. I need you to tell me everything you can. What’s your situation like. Can you see any landmarks. Are there any other captives with you?”

Charlie pushed the uncomfortable thought of James’ romantic inclinations away, and focused on the task at hand. A few months of burgeoning sexual awareness had taught Charlie that he was definitely into girls, but that was a conversation better saved for later.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “There’s a bunch of other prisoners in here too, but they’re all in their own cells. I haven’t got to talk to any of them yet. As for landmarks, there’s mountains outside the window, and it’s snowed most days since I got here-”

That was as far as he got before Twenty Three wrenched the phone from his hand and spoke into the mouthpiece, her tone curt:

“You’re trying to figure out where we are,” she said. “I’ll save you some time. We’re in Sweden. The facility is on the edge of a forest, about two miles east of Östra Kjolsjön’s southern tip. You can see Åreskutan through the window, so the cell block has to be on the south side of the complex.” With that, she pressed the phone back into Charlie’s hands. “First thing I did when I was planning this was track down a map.” She stepped towards the doorway. “Keep talking. I’m going to get a fresh disguise.”

Charlie returned the phone to his ear just in time to make out a question from a voice he didn’t recognize; male and faintly middle-eastern.

“Who was that?” the stranger asked. “Are there people with you? Can you trust them?”

“Yeah-” Charlie started, before cutting himself off. “I mean, I think so. I think she’s the one that Caleb guy was trying to save. She said she’d try and get me out.”

A distant grunt.

“Caleb will be thrilled,” Hideyoshi muttered. “And how’s the rescue progressing?”

“It’s, uh,” Charlie weighed up what he knew about the situation thus far in his head. “Not great.” He crossed the room to peak out through the doorway. He spotted Twenty Three almost immediately, an unconscious body he recognized as the guard who, ten minutes ago, had been patrolling the cell-block slung about her shoulder. “She’s taken out a bunch of guards, but they put a tracking chip inside me, so we can’t sneak away unless someone can punch a hole.”

There was a loud crunching noise from somewhere up above. Both Charlie and Twenty Three looked towards the ceiling.

“… And the roof just started glowing,” he added lamely. “No idea what that’s about.”

The sudden tide of questions that comment prompted was drowned out by Twenty Three’s response. Across the hallway, the young woman went from double speed to triple. She lugged the unconscious guard down the hall until she reached the first doorway with a simple handle instead of a secure lock, and quite simply kicked it open.

“Tell em I’m gonna get you out by car!” She shouted. “I need em to make some noise and make sure no one has a chance to follow us!”

Charlie nodded, returning his attention to the phone just in time for the flow of questions to suddenly come to a stop.

There was a quiet pop. Then silence.

“… Your mom’s here,” said James.

Charlie took a breath.

Keep it together.

“Hi, Mom.”

He was proud of that. His voice only caught a little.

No response. Just the muttered sounds of Hideyoshi relaying the situation to the new arrivals.

Then, in a voice of pure fact, Charlie’s mother spoke.

“Charlie,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there. We’re having enchilada wraps for dinner, and none of this is ever getting close to you again. You hear me?”

Charlie sniffed.

“… Yeah. Ok.”

When Jacqueline Vance spoke again, the words were not directed at her son.

“I’ll have a portal open in two minutes. Have a plan ready by then, or I’m leaving you behind.”

The middle-eastern voice answered first.

“I haven’t cast a spell in almost a day. I’m at full power.”

“Me as well,” Tsuru agreed. “Minus a couple of teleports. I don’t think raw force should be an issue. The only concern is the woman they’ve got in charge.”

The stranger started to reply, before Hideyoshi cut him off.

“You leave their leadership to me,” he said. “I have a score to settle with the woman who broke my spine.”

Charlie opened his mouth, but Tsuru spoke before he could.

“Absolutely not,” she said, her tone firm. “You are to stay in the rear in case we need artillery. I am not letting you fight her with an injury.”

Hideyoshi started to reply. This time, it was Charlie’s turn to interrupt.

“Do you mean the woman who teleported me?” he asked. “Cuz she’s dead. Twenty Three killed her the moment we got here.”

A moment’s quiet.

“How sure are you?” Tsuru asked.

“Pretty sure.” Charlie shrugged. “She got stabbed like, seven times cuz Twenty Three had a meltdown.” There was something deeply wrong, Charlie thought, about being able to say those words in so matter-of-fact a manner. “… I think I might need therapy.”

A chuckle.

“Right,” Tsuru resumed. “Hideyoshi will take the lead, then. Binyamin and I can stay in reserve.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet mutter something along the lines of: “Trust your damned husband, woman.”

Charlie cleared his throat.

“Uh. Twenty Three says she’s gonna get me to a car. She needs you to hold em off while we-”

“Stay exactly where you are,” came Hideyoshi’s answer. “You’re in the southern cell-block. As long as I know that’s where you are, I can make sure you don’t get hit.”

Charlie glanced towards the ceiling.

“The roof’s still glowing.”

“That just means we have to hurry.”

A few ever tenser moments later, Jacqueline announced the portal ready, and Hideyoshi barked the order to advance, leaving Charlie presumably alone with James. The silence that followed then held a very different kind of tension.

“… Still there?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” James replied. “Me and your mom. She’s holding the portal open.”

“Right.” Charlie contemplated his life for a second, then took a breath. “So,” he tried. “I’m uh. I’m straight-”

“Right,” came James’ overly hastened reply. “Sure. Cool. Of course you are. Great.”

Another awkward moment’s quiet, then Charlie started laughing.

“Such, a freaking, dork.”

“… Shut up.”

“Never.”

In the quiet that followed, the elemental began laying down his siege.

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Care: 6.8

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James:

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

The movies had been wrong. Wizard training sucked.

He opened his eyes.

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

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

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

“I am calm,” he replied, annoyed.

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

Traitor.

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

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

Casper stuck out his tongue.

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

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

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

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

Hideyoshi chuckled, the sound a tad bitter. 

“Why don’t I belie-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

It was Casper who responded first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper groaned.

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

Tsuru shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

James looked to his grandmother. She smiled.

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

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

“… Winter,” he admitted.

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

“And you?” James asked.

Casper shrugged.

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

“Liar,” Tsuru muttered. “How?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess I did kinda cheat.”

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

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

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

He took a breath, and closed his eyes.

Right.

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

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

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

Okay. Obvious stuff first. I was raped.

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

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

Some small part of him snickered.

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

James scowled.

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

Somewhere inside him, his inner critic rolled his eyes.

Then why are you scared of liking guys?

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

Cuz it hurt. Duh.

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

James rolled his eyes for real this time.

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

… You sure about that?

“Yeah,” James groaned. “Pretty sure.”

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

I’m not asking anyone. Ever.

… Yeah. Fair enough.

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

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

I am not.

Yes you are.

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

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

The inner James shook his head.

You’re pretty gay, dude.

Since when?

Inner James smiled.

Since Charlie.

… Shut up.

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

James went slightly red.

Did not.

His inner self was laughing now.

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

His cheeks began to burn.

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

His inner self laughed even harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper sighed.

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

Tsuru nodded.

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

“A little trust’d be cool, James.”

James groaned.

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

James shook his head.

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

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

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

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

Binyamin nodded.

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

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

He focused.

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

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

In spite of everything, the image made him smile.

“Okay,” he murmured. “Found it.”

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

James raised an eyebrow at that.

“Okay, sure. How do I do that?”

A quiet chuckle.

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

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

Ok. So far, so good.

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

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

A broad grin, then his own reply.

“Lead singer of Pentatonix.”

James chuckled at that, then shook himself.

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

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

The rape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kept going.

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

“… I think I got it. What now?”

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

“Uptown Funk,” said James.

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

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

“Totally,” James replied.

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

James jumped slightly when his phone rang. 

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

“It’s fine.”

James pulled out his phone, and checked the screen.

He didn’t recognize the number.

He sighed.

This better not be a scam.

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

“Hello?” he asked.

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

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

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

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Care: 6.6

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James:

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

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

“… Don’t patronize me, woman.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

“… I kinda wish I had your powers.”

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

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

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

The boys looked at one another. James shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His grandmother snorted.

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

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

James scowled at his grandfather. So did Tsuru.

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

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

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

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

Heck!

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

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

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

Casper just looked at him at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A momentary silence, then another sigh from his grandpa.

“I see.”

“… Promise you won’t tell dad?”

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

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

“I wanna save him.”

Tsuru shook her head.

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

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

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

She took a deep breath, then continued.

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

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

Hideyoshi answered before Tsuru could.

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

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

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

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

Stupid radar brain, he thought, squeezing back.

Eventually, Tsuru broke the quiet with a sigh.

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

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

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

Tsuru snorted.

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

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

“… That’d be so freakin’ cool.”

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Care: 6.1

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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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