As he watched his newly found friends wave goodbye to him, he choked over his words with sobs. It couldn’t have been all over already? It felt like things were just getting started! They just crowned him prince! How was supposed to fulfill his newly appointed royal duties now? As the Trickster gave his final bow, the red curtains closed and the world of Kooza slowly disappeared around the Innocent: first the bataclan, then the fairy lights went out strand by strand, then the four towers that they hung between. Everything faded from view like a dream and the Innocent was left standing alone in the same park he had been flying his kite in before the whole adventure. Was it just a fanciful daydream?
The Innocent dried his cheeks with the sleeve of his sweater, seeing it was still the blue and orange stripes the Trickster had changed them to when they first met. He then checked his kite: it wasn’t worn out but had a swirl in the same colours as his clothes. So far so good, but there was one final test. He slowly reached up to the top of his head, hesitant of what he might or might not find, until his fingertips touched cool metal and he traced one of the inlaid gems on the crown. It was real, it was all real! The Innocent practically jumped for joy when he confirmed all of this in his reflection in the nearby pond, spinning around to share the news, only for his smile to fade when he remembered that there were only trees where the bataclan had just stood, and he was all alone.
Suddenly his stomach grumbled. It was a bit before lunchtime when he left and with all of the excitement of Kooza he completely forgot about eating. But it looked like it was the same time of day now, so maybe he could meet back up with the group and ask the sitter for a snack. He quickened his pace towards the main field of the park, almost in a skip. And he could tell Zoe about the adventure he had! She’d probably be the only one who’d believe him anyway, and it was only fair as a return to the story she told him a while back. But what was he going to tell the sitter about his new appearance...? He chewed on his lip as he slowed down his pace just a bit. There was no way he could explain it in a way for her to understand...
The Innocent reached the main section of the park, but he couldn’t spot the group of kids he originally arrived with anywhere. In fact, the park was mainly filled with young adults on their phones and all wearing strikingly similar monochrome outfits. He looked down at his own clothes again; he’s definitely going to stick out a lot more than in his old grey-striped getup. The Innocent scanned the park again, hoping that maybe he missed them the first time around, but no luck. Maybe they moved on without him? He decided that he could be angry at them about that later, since right now he was far more worried than anything else. He followed the main walking path until he got to the street it faced and that his foster home was across from; but when he looked across the road, it wasn’t there! Instead stood a clean condominium where people similar to those in the park streamed in and out, and which the Innocent stared at with a gaping mouth. He glanced back at the park, then at the building again. How long had he been gone? It must’ve been only a few hours at most?
He hung his kite on the back of a nearby bench and sat down, pulling his knees up to his chest and holding his head in his hands, trying to fight back tears. He never thought to ask how time moved in Kooza, if he’d even be back by dinner. The Trickster probably would’ve laughed at him anyway and not give him a straight answer. Tears were definitely falling now. What was he going to do? Where did they go? How could he find them? Did they even try to look for him when he disappeared? They were the only people he really knew in the city, and he certainly didn’t know how to get anywhere he’s been to except for the park, maybe the grocery store if it hadn’t been replaced too. He’s just a kid! What stranger would want to help him? Certainly none of these people around him, who barely glanced up as he ran by them.
While the Innocent was failing to prevent himself from panicking, he also failed to notice a man across the street who had definitely noticed him. He was just recently trying to get himself out of a period of anxiety after reading the front page headline in the newspaper still clutched in his hands when he happened to look up and spot the boy. Seeing as literally no one else walking past had noticed, or at least not cared to do something about the boy’s distress, the man sighed as shoved the newspaper in a trash bin and glanced both ways before crossing the street.
“Hey...is...everything alright?” The Innocent lifted his head to see the man standing in front of him.
“N-No,” he managed to say, bunching one of his sleeves into his hand and wiping his eyes. The Innocent then points to the building, “How long has that been there?”
The man turned to follow his pointing and taps a finger against his chin to think, “Umm...it’s relatively new; I think they finished construction a few months ago?”
“A few months?!?” the Innocent repeats, putting his head in his hands again. “Oh no, no that’s not good at all!! Why didn’t I ask the Trickster how long I’d been there??”
“The Trickster...?” The man asks, “That doesn’t exactly sound like someone a kid like you should be spending time with...”
The Innocent sighed, “I didn’t really have a choice... He popped out of a box that was delivered to me and brought me to Kooza...” Now that he thought about it, how did the mailman know he was there in the park? He must have been in on the whole thing, somehow... “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You’re an adult; you won’t believe anything I say. But I lived in a house that used to be where that building stands but now I don’t know where it is.”
The man smiled sadly at him, sitting down next to the Innocent. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can help you with that... Not much you can do when a magical world sweeps you away then spits you out again a year or so later, I guess. Do you have any extended family around that you can go to? Like aunts or uncles?” The Innocent shook his head. “Hmm...that’s not helpful...”
The Innocent’s stomach grumbled again, louder than the first time, prompting the man to laugh a little bit as the boy clutched his stomach. “S-Sorry...” he mumbled.
“Hey, don’t be. I know of a pretty decent coffee shop down the road; they do sandwiches and stuff too. I was actually on my way there before I saw you.” The man stood up and offered a hand. “Do you wanna come with?”
“I-I don’t even know you...” The Innocent replied, squinting at the outstretched hand.
“Didn’t stop you going with that Joker fella.”
“He’s called the Trickster!” The Innocent jumped to his feet. “And I told you, I didn’t have a choice!”
“Yeah, okay kiddo,” the man replied, sticking his hand in his coat pocket and raising an eyebrow at the boy scrutinizing every detail of him like wary feral cat. “Anyway, name’s Waz. Do you want free food or not?”
“That’s a weird name.” The Innocent squinted at him again in silence for another minute and Waz huffed in response, shaking his head and checking the time on his phone. Then in an instance, the Innocent cracked a grin and spun around to grab his kite. “Okay then, let’s go!” he says, slinging the kite’s strap over his shoulder and running past the man.
Both of Waz’s eyebrows were raised now, “Well, that was quite the shift in attitude... You don’t even know where you’re going!” he called after the boy, making him stop.
Waz opened the door to the café, warily glancing at the other patrons at their tables as he pulled his hat down more securely on his head. The Innocent didn’t notice this small action as he immediately rushed to the display cases containing the many lunch items and other treats.
“Wait, can I have any of this?” he asks Waz, not breaking eye-contact with the food.
“I mean, I guess? Although there’re some things you probably won’t like the taste of...”
Waz placed their orders with the cashier after the Innocent took what felt like forever to make up his mind on what he wanted because “all of it” wasn’t an acceptable answer. They found an empty table and sat down, the Innocent hanging his kite on the back of the chair while Waz first crumpled up a discarded newspaper and throwing it out before settling into his lunch: a sandwich and coffee for him while the Innocent had his own sandwich, juice and a cupcake he would’ve begged endlessly for if Waz didn’t immediately agree to it.
“So I didn’t exactly get your name...” Waz started.
“I’m not supposed to give strangers that kind of information,” the Innocent replied, biting into his sandwich.
“...You followed a stranger to a café when he could’ve easily taken you somewhere else...”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” the Innocent said, shrugging. Waz gave a confused look at the boy’s logic and shook his head.
“Well I’m not sure how I’m supposed to help you out; identification info is kind of key to locating missing persons.”
“Assuming they think I’m still missing...” the Innocent mumbled, and then shrugged again but more heavily than the first time. “At the house they called me Linus but in Kooza they called me the Innocent... So, your choice, I guess.”
“So what exactly was this Kooza place? It must’ve been pretty amazing considering you keep mentioning it.” It was obvious to Waz that the Innocent didn’t want to talk about his current situation, so he hoped that maybe changing the subject to...whatever it was would change the boy’s mood. And boy did it.
At Waz’s prompting, the Innocent went off about his whole adventure there: how the Trickster had popped out of the box, the unveiling of the bataclan and the graceful movements of the charivari, the clown king and his two most loyal subjects, the unicycle couple and the double high-wire and all of the other acts, how the Trickster let him borrow his wand to practice magic and his accidental summoning of a hoard of skeletons and demons (the mentioning of which he seemed extremely embarrassed by, and more so at the fact that the Trickster had to save him from his own mistake). He finished with how the clown king gave him his crown and the Trickster anointed him before promptly leaving him behind; at this point his smile faded a bit to a sad one as he picked at the remnants of his sandwich’s crust.
“Wow, that’s...quite a lot that happened to you,” Waz said once the Innocent finished talking. “Heck, I’d take that over my current situation... I’d be bummed too if I had to leave all of that behind, especially without a choice.”
“Yeah...it was pretty great while it lasted. It’s too bad normal life can’t be that exciting...”
“Well, I don’t know about that...” A café employee who was cleaning the tables behind them piped up, tossing his cloth on the spray bottle before clapping Waz on the shoulder. “Hey, nice spread you had in the paper; not at all surprised that it was front cover material.”
Waz looked up at the man grinning at him, “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me...” he groaned, rubbing his face irritably. “Please, for the love of God keep your voice down. The last thing I need right now are those Greys over there hearing you...”
“What are you guys talking about?” the Innocent asked. The appearance of the employee was odd enough compared to the rest of the establishment – rubbed off remains of colour on his arms could be seen peeking out from under his grey uniform and he sported a bright yellow headband – and trying to figure out how he could know Waz absolutely confused him.
“What, how could you not know?!?” the man laughed, “Wow, you really must’ve been in another world after all if you haven’t got a clue about the drama that’s been happening the past few weeks!”
Waz turned around to face the man, “Hey, leave the kid alone.”
“Yeah, yeah...” he waved Waz off, picking up his cleaning supplies. Before he leaves, he turns back to their table. “Hey, we’re meeting at Barnaby Park around 4pm. You should stop by; Ela’s been worried like heck about you.”
“Really?” Waz raised an eyebrow, a hint of disbelief in his voice.
The man chuckled and shrugged, “Once you put even one foot in the coop, you can’t escape the mother hen. Don’t tell her I said that though.”
Waz laughed and turned back to face the Innocent, who was scrunching up his face in trying to decipher what was going on. “Your face will stick like that if you hold it long enough.”
“No, it won’t!” the Innocent almost shouted back, making the only other patrons in the shop – Waz called them the Greys earlier; he’d have to ask about that later – look up from the phones and glare at them.
Waz cleared his throat, “Okay...Well I think it’s time for us to go then, if you’re all done.” Without allowing time for the Innocent to try and argue, Waz started clearing their table of garbage and headed out the door, the striped boy quickly grabbing his kite and following close at his heels.
“So who was that guy? Who’s Ela? Is she nice? She sounds nice. Are we going to meet them at the park later? What time is it anyway? Why were you in the paper?” the Innocent rattled off, hanging his kite’s strap over his shoulders.
Waz sighed heavily, not slowing his pace, “He’s one of the Free Spirits about town. Ela’s their leader. She has a lot of energy. But yeah I guess she’s nice...” Waz checked his phone for the time, “It’s around 2:30. I don’t know if I’ll go. And...well... It’s complicated...”
“Is it because you have blue hair? I don’t know if I’d call that news-worthy...”
Waz stopped dead in his tracks, causing the Innocent to run into his back. After a short pause, he turned around and bent himself down to the boy’s eye level. “What makes you say that?”
“Well...umm...” the Innocent looked away at the sudden eye-contact, hesitating to continue, unsure if he said something wrong or was about to, “Well...It’s just that your eyebrows are blue...So I just...assumed...?”
Waz pursed his lips as he straightened himself and started walking again, not saying anything in response.
“H-hey, wait!” the Innocent called out, chasing after him. The Innocent trailed a few steps behind him, playing with his striped sleeves as he kept his eyes trained on Waz’s heels and felt potential tears in the corners of his eyes. He definitely said something wrong. He didn’t want Waz to be angry at him; he couldn’t also lose the first person in this town kind enough to help him.