“How long since you’ve been back?” Jason asked Hiro as the motorhome drew closer to their hometown of Casselton Beach.
“Your memorial service. There wasn’t a body, obviously, so no burial or cremation.”
“The body is just a vessel,” Jason said. “It probably sounds weird, me talking about a soul, but I know more intimately than most.”
Hiro shook his head.
“It still doesn’t seem possible. I mean, you’ve shown me the impossible and I still have trouble believing it.”
“Good,” Jason said. “Don’t go losing your sceptical outlook just because your nephew turned out to be a wizard.”
“See, this doesn’t help,” Hiro said. “You go out of your way to make it seem absurd.”
“It is absurd,” Jason said. “We’re in a magic motorhome made of clouds being driven by the son of Death.”
“Actually, that might be a bridge too far,” Jason said. “There’s still a lot to ease you into. How’s Taika doing?”
“He’s gotten on board weirdly fast,” Hiro said. “His father did me a good turn and I promised to keep Taika out of trouble. Give a good job, make sure he doesn’t get pulled too deep into the life. I have no idea how I’m going to explain all this to his Dad. Have we pulled him into something dangerous?”
“That’s on me,” Jason said. “I’ve been treating this world like the rules are the same as the other one and they’re not. I need to get my head around that before even more people get hurt. I’ve been on a war footing in my head and that needs to stop. If I keep being violent, then I’ll just bring violence down on us all.”
“I got you and Taika caught up in my mess. I’ve been telling myself that I’ll do what it takes to keep you safe, but in my head that meant being willing to go further and hit harder than the other guy. I’ve realised that’s less about being willing to do whatever it takes and more about getting caught up in a story I’m telling myself. It’s an ongoing problem I have that always seems to blow back on the people around me rather than myself. A willingness to do what it takes means that if what it takes is eating some humble pie, I have to be willing to do that.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hiro said.
“I used to think I was so clever. A natural politician. The reality is, even in a simpler society I was out of my depth and here I’m just flailing, like an angry child with a gun.”
“Maybe going home is what you need,” Hiro said. “Step away from all the magic and madness. Let yourself get grounded for a while. No one brings you down to Earth like family.”
Jason suddenly burst out laughing.
“What?” Hiro asked.
“I just realised that I’m more nervous about seeing my sister than when I had to go see a bunch of gods.”
“Oh, yeah; gods are real. Just not local, that I’m aware of. I mean, they could be. I won’t know unless one of them rocks up to say g’day, which puts me in the same boat as everyone else, I guess. I think I might go check in with Taika and see how he’s doing.”
“Wait, gods?” Hiro asked incredulously as Jason wandered toward the elevating platform.
“Don’t feel bad,” Jason said. “Atheism’s a valid position to hold, based on the information you had available. It’s wrong, though. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
Jason rose to the upper level, where Taika and Gordon were sitting in front of the television on the wall.
“The reason it’s the best one is because there’s five of them,” Taika said. “If one man can make a difference, then five people can make five times as much difference.”
“Taika,” Jason said disapprovingly. “Are you introducing Gordon to the wrong Knight Rider?”
“Your magic bus yacht has good internet, bro. Who’s your provider?”
In winter, Casselton Beach went from sleepy tourist town to outright hibernation. The marina was at only a fraction of capacity, with only a few charter boats still operating, catering to seasonal fishers. With the warmth of spring, wealthy pleasure boats would return as wealthy holidaymakers arrived like bears emerging after their winter slumber.
Jason had hired out a marina berth for his cloud house, much as he had done in Greenstone. Shade drove the motorhome directly onto the water, to the alarm of Taika and Hiro, but it floated perfectly well. Then Jason ushered everyone off and he pulled out the flask to start the transformation from motorhome to houseboat.
“That’s quite a magic item,” Vermillion said. “Are there many like that… where you’ve been?”
“It’s pretty special, even over there,” Jason said. “I won it in a contest.”
“Like a raffle?”
“Not exactly,” Jason laughed. “Where are you staying?”
“The Cabal bought a place. It turns out there are a lot of expensive homes around here, once you get out of the town proper.”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “Lots of rich people keep holiday homes here.”
“I have to go see your mother,” Vermillion said.
“You bought it from my Mum?”
“She is the pre-eminent upscale realtor in the Greater Casselton area.”
“Just because it says that on her website doesn’t make it true.”
“The house is close to town, but apparently secluded enough that people won’t notice the donors coming and going.”
“As in blood donors?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Vermillion said. “I only need to feed around once a week, unless I get very active. Recruiting locals is not a good idea, so the Cabal will send along one of the people we’ve cultivated for the purpose each week. They get a nice drive and enough money to live on for a month, so they aren’t exactly losing out. They don’t even have to do the driving themselves, since we aren’t going to send them on a road trip woozy from donating. They get a driver.”
“You know, I did check out that club of yours,” Jason said.
“You did? My people didn’t notice.”
“They weren’t meant to,” Jason said. “I wanted to make sure you weren’t lying about not killing people.”
“Where’s the trust?” Vermillion asked.
“I trust,” Jason said, “but I also verify. Tell me your people didn’t run my whole life through a sieve and I’ll apologise.”
“You’re not worth that kind of effort,” Vermillion said.
“Is that right?” Jason asked.
“Yes it is.”
“What’s my mother’s middle name?”
“How would I possibly know that?” Vermillion asked.
Jason looked at him from under raised eyebrows.
“Okay, it’s Marie,” Vermillion admitted. “Can I have my car back, please?”
“You know, I’m going to be dealing with your mother a lot as well,” Hiro said as they watched Vermillion drive off. “If I’m going to start up a development here, working with her commercial office just makes sense.”
“Is that going to work out?” Jason asked. “As I recall, my mother came down firmly on your mother’s side regarding your vocational choices.”
“Once your grandmother comes around, Cheryl won’t be a problem.”
“And Nanna’s going to come around, is she?”
“She cares more about being right than anything I might have done. The prodigal son contritely returning home having learned his lesson is exactly what she wants.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Jason said sceptically.
“You know, we’re both here to make awkward homecomings,” Hiro said. “I’m going to start by going to see Ken.”
“I’m going to wait until tomorrow night and pay Erika a visit,” Jason said. “I’ll wait until her birthday celebration wraps up. It’s falling on a Friday, so she’ll probably be having a party. If you go see dad, he’ll probably drag you along.”
“Yeah,” Hiro said. “To annoy your mother, if nothing else.”
“I want to say that I can’t believe they got divorced, but I can.”
“What will you be doing before tomorrow night?” Hiro asked.
“Oh, I have some things to do.”
Kaito was on his way home when the phone affixed to his dash rang and he tapped the screen to answer.
“Hey, Ames,” he greeting.
“G’day,” Amy said, Kaito recognising the particular brand of weariness in his wife’s voice.
“Council meeting?” he asked.
“They’re all morons,” she said. “Why did I run for mayor again?”
“Because the mayor was a moron.”
“Right. Can I just dissolve the senate and rule with an iron fist?”
“I don’t think the Casselton Regional Council has a senate, Ames.”
“Boo. How are the girls?”
“They’ve been good,” he said.
“You sound weird,” Amy said. “You alright?”
“I’m having a… I thought… I don’t know. I’m having a weird day.”
“Weird how?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you about it tonight. I’m on my way home now.”
“You should go talk to Erika,” she said.
“Maybe I will.”
“See if you can talk her into cooking,” Amy said.
“Your ulterior motive is revealed,” Kaito said. “You know it’s her birthday tomorrow.”
“Tell her I’ll get her TV show a tax break.”
“We’ve told her that before,” Kaito said.
“Tell her I’m not lying this time.”
“But you are lying this time.”
“Of course I am. I can’t force that through the budget.”
“I’ll see what I can do. We’re coming up on home; see you tonight, love.”
He ended the call and pulled into the driveway of his house. A glance in the mirror showed that he was looking haggard. He looked over the house next door, seeing his sister sitting by the window in her lounge room, typing away on her laptop. He pulled out his phone and called her.
“Hey, brother,” Erika greeted, waving through the window. “What’s up?”
“Mind if I come over for a cuppa?”
“No worries. I don’t need to pick Emi up from football practice for an hour.”
Kaito extricated his two daughters from their safety seats, leading Hana by the hand and carrying Jace across the yard and up to the door, where Erika opened it to greet them. Erika brewed some tea while Kaito settled the girls in the lounge. Erika and Kaito then sat in the dining area where they could keep an eye on them.
“What’s got you so frazzled, brother? You don’t look so good.”
“I’ve been… seeing things. Since this morning. The first time I thought it was a weird reflection, then that I just saw something wrong. I mean, it had to be my imagination but I just kept seeing him, over and over.”
“Jason. I went out, late this morning. Some shopping, some chores. Everywhere I go, there he is. I know I’m just seeing things but I can’t stop seeing them anyway.”
“Well,” Erika said. “Maybe you should talk about this with your wife. See if you can’t figure out some reason you might feel guilty about something.”
“Don’t ‘Erika’ me. You know what this is, Kaito. Ultimately, it’s better that she ended up with you than Jason, but that was going to be a train wreck in the best case scenario. The way you actually did it? It’s like you found a psychological warfare specialist to devise the most effective way to hurt him, and you never had the chance to make amends for that.”
“He’d never agree to see us.”
“Because he knew that he’d stab you in the face.”
“You really think that she’s better with me than him?” he asked.
“Long term, yeah,” Erika said. “Jason was a lot to deal with. He had a lot of hard edges and he never stopped pushing. I like Amy, I do, but she was always going to get consumed in Jason. But you’re Jason with the hard edges sanded down. You know when to stop.”
“There was no stopping Jason,” Kaito agreed.
“Yes, there was, Kaito. You and Amy stopped him like a speeding car hitting a wall. He was finally starting to get it together when…”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you’ve heard this from me before and I don’t mean to go dredging up the past. We all have sins behind us.”
“I just never had the chance to make amends.”
“I hate to break it to you, Kaito, but that isn’t the tragic part.”
“I know, I…”
He was interrupted by his phone.
“It’s Benny,” he said. “I should take this.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
Kaito took the phone into the kitchen. Shortly after, Erika started hearing incredulous sounds coming from Kaito.
“They what? Yellow? Wait, the bad guy from those movies? I’m not coming in if there’s paint fumes. I have the girls with me. Because she’s the frigging mayor, Benny.”
Kaito came out of the kitchen looking disgruntled.
“What happened?” Erika asked.
“Benny’s been maintaining the helicopter in the off season, but he went in today and someone had painted it bright yellow.”
“Someone painted your helicopter?”
“Yeah. They got into the hangar somehow, painted it yellow and wrote the name of the villain from those superhero movies across it. What do superheroes have to do with my helicopter?”
“Are you talking about Thanos?”
“Yeah, the purple one with the weird skin beard.”
Erika erupted into laughter.