The Mythic Naga #12

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Daniel groaned as his mind pulled him from guilt ridden dreams into guilt ridden reality.

It was Thursday. The day before yesterday, Tuesday, Natalie had stopped Damien from kidnapping his own sister. They had found no trace of Kaden, the brother, but instead a wall. A wall that Natalie could find no other side to despite scouring the abandoned sewers for a full day and night. Tuesday had also been the day he was going to prove his worth to the team and failed.

Yesterday, Wednesday, he had woken up with a very different emotion weighing him down like a rock in his gut. He had carried this dread all the way to school. When he read the school paper, that rock had turned into a clawing, sickening guilt. It wanted to tear him apart from the inside out, making him queasy enough to nearly vomit.

The headline read, “Mysterious Monsters Sighting Again: Naga and Speed Demon Battle on School Grounds!” Worse, he had heard kids whispering about the torn banner and broken signboard. They were starting to wonder if what Thomas wrote was true.

In a crumpled fist, Daniel had climbed the stairs to the second floor. Each step grew heavier as he approached his locker.

No slurs or graffiti waited for him.

There had been a strange relief in finding that Thomas had kept his promise. It left Daniel feeling disgusted at himself. He deserved to be punished. He shouldn’t have anything good come his way after his betrayal. He wanted to hit something, but the only anger that came was at himself.

A hand had clasped his shoulder and even now he flinched at the sight and touch of Thomas Laville.

“There, Danny,” the quarterback-journalist had said, “that looks much better, right? And all you have to do to keep it that way is nothing. Sounds like a pretty easy deal to me.”

The rest of that day had been free of bullying. Free of jeers and names thrown at his back. And yet it was one of the worst days in his life.

He didn’t talk to Mr. Ross. He didn’t go visit Natalie after school, though it would not have done any good since she had still been searching for the other side of the wall. He had trudged home, crawled into bed, and cried himself to sleep.

Now, here he was. About to face another day of living with his horrible decision.

Every time he thought about fixing his mistake, the words and actions of his tormentors rose up in his mind like an army to pierce his hopes like slings and arrows.

A knock sounded at the door to his room.

“Daniel,” his foster mom called, her voice as precise as ever, “may I come in?”

“J-just a minute,” he called back, though even he could hear the lack of energy in his words.

He struggled into his clothes as fast as he could despite the weight pressing against his body and mind. Checking to make sure he could breathe properly; he opened his bedroom door.

On the other side stood his foster mother, Monica. She was dressed in her normal work clothes: a dark, well-fitted suit and pants with flat, practical shoes. Daniel had once asked why she wore dress pants instead of a pencil skirt and heels like the other female employees at her law firm. She had responded by giving him a flat look and lifting her leg until it rested on the table.

“You cannot do this in a pencil skirt,” she had said.

As it had been then, and nearly every day since he had known her, Monica’s make up was perfectly in place and her dark, almost-brown-almost-black, shoulder length hair was parted straight down the middle. Her thin, rectangular glasses were set in dark frames that gave her an imperious look, which served her well in court. The only jewelry she wore was her wedding ring, a simple but immaculately polished band of gold around her finger.

Her hazel eyes scanned him up and down.

“You do not look well,” she said, her voice and expression remaining unchanged from its neutral resting position.

“I’m fine,” he lied, averting his eyes from hers.

She tilted her head ever so slightly.

“May I come in?” she asked again, her voice a hint softer than before.

Daniel nodded and stepped aside.

Monica strode in confidently. She paused momentarily, glancing at the swivel chair in front of the desk, the seat piled high with unfolded laundry.

Daniel winced. He had been meaning to put that away.

Instead of commenting on the clothes, and the rather sorry state of his room, Monica apparently elected to sit stiffly on the edge of his bed. She awkwardly patted the space beside her, indicating he should sit there.

Daniel almost laughed. She looked so out of place in the organized chaos of his room. If only her employees and clients could see her now.

He shuffled over to the bed and sat down next to her. They waited next to each other for several long moments.

Daniel knew most people considered his foster parents to be rather…robotic in their speech and mannerisms. He couldn’t blame them. Monica and Drew were extremely orderly and precise. Their apartment was spotless and tidy, like one of those model homes in magazines. The two of them spoke only when they felt they needed to and always with correct diction. When he had first been handed over to them, Daniel had been sure they would kick him out within the month for being too messy…or too messed up.

But they had surprised him. They were not the best at expressing their emotions, but they always made sure he was well cared for. And they had their own little ways of showing that they cared.

Neither of them were master chefs but they made sure he always had plenty of nutritious food and that it was all things he liked. They were always home for the holidays, they supported all of his hobbies and interests, and while they did sometimes scold him when he made a mistake, they never went anywhere near as far as his biological parents had.

When his first birthday with them was coming up, he had hesitantly asked for a specific cake from a video game that he loved. They had nodded and said “We will do our best,” which from his experience in previous homes had always meant, “If it’s convenient we’ll do it.” So he had nearly cried when his birthday rolled around and he came home to find a perfect recreation of the cake, strawberries and all.

If they were robots, like everyone joked, they were the nicest robots ever.

So he didn’t mind waiting for Monica to figure out the right words for what she wanted to say.

“You have been…distracted lately,” she finally said. “Are you…Have the bullies been treating you worse?”

He remembered the day he had told Monica and Drew about how Carson and Paul had been treating him. That was the one time he could remember them becoming very, very emotional. Monica had been ready to sue the entire school. Drew, being an accountant, wanted to send them into financial ruin. They had only refrained when Daniel asked them not to. He hadn’t wanted to be a burden, he still didn’t. Besides, he was worried that gossip would start up and spread his secret even further. He couldn’t face the idea of anyone finding out after Carson’s reaction, especially not once he developed a crush on Natalie.

“No,” he said, which was technically true.

“Then what is wrong?” she asked, awkwardly placing a hand on his shoulder. She quickly removed it when he flinched.

“Sorry,” he said. It wasn’t that he didn’t like being touched, it just felt too similar to how Thomas had held his shoulder.

Daniel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Maybe this was a way out. Maybe this was a chance at making things right? But how much could he tell her?

“I made a mistake,” he blurted out.

“A mistake?” she asked, cocking one perfect eyebrow.

He nodded. The words fought to get out, to tell somebody.

“I was supposed to…to do something for a friend,” he said, careful not to give specifics. “but this other kid promised to stop the bullying if I didn’t do what I promised to do. I know I shouldn’t have, but…they threated to make it even worse if I did keep my promise.” He hugged himself, curling inward, trying to get away from the guilt. “So I broke my promise. I pretended like I had done what my friend asked me to do, but I didn’t. Now, I’m afraid of what’ll happen when my friend finds out, but I’m also afraid of what the other kid will do if I fix things for my friend. Plus, if I don’t keep my promise to my friend, they might end up getting hurt.” He could feel tears rolling down his cheeks. “I don’t know what to do! I’m a coward and a failure and a fake and I can’t do anything right!”

He tried to hold them back, but the sobs burst through.

Immediately Monica’s arms were around him. They were stiff and unsure, but warm and strong. She held him as he cried.

“I am sorry that you are facing such a dilemma,” she said as he finally got his tears under control and pulled away. “I know you will not allow me to pursue legal action, though you should. Thus, I propose a different solution. I do not know the specifics, but I think you must explain to your friend what you have done and work to rectify your mistake.”

“But what if they don’t want to be my friend anymore?”

“Then they were never truly your friend to begin with. I have…difficulty with relationships, but I know that a true friend understands your struggles and works to support you. If you explain to them why you broke the promise and how you are going to repair the damage, I think that they will understand.”

“But what about Carson and Paul?”

“If they intend to cross the line from slurs and graffiti into legitimate assault, I will be pursuing legal action.”

He opened his mouth to protest but she held up a hand. “There will be no arguing over this Daniel. Assault goes beyond simple name calling, it is a real crime and these boys must be taught that their actions have real consequences. I can provide you with a body camera to provide legitimacy to our case.”

Daniel paused to consider this. Why was he so opposed to Monica taking his bullies to court? Was it because he didn’t want to cause a scene? Was it because it might out him? Was it because they had once been his friends?

Something lit up in his gut. He had cried most of the guilt out and now something was growing in its place.

Who cared if Carson had been his friend once? As Monica put it, he clearly hadn’t been a real friend. Who cared if he was outed? Their bullying basically did that anyway for anyone who was paying attention. Why should he care about causing a scene? They were threatening him and they were threatening Natalie. Let the other students think whatever they wanted. The time was overdue to see his tormentors get what they deserved.

Daniel wiped the last tears from his eyes. “Thank you, Monica.”

“You are very welcome, Daniel,” she stood and Daniel winced at the wet patch on her shirt that his crying had left.

“Sorry about that,” he said, pointing at the spot.

Monica glanced down and shrugged. “You do not need to apologize. I can change, and a quick round in the wash will take care of this. I am merely glad I was able to help. You are worth more than a shirt to us.”

He stood as she left and walked over to the mirror. Red, puffy eyes looked back at him. He was a mess. But now he was a mess with a plan. He knew what he had to do.

Now he just had to do it…

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