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“You should come to your sister’s party tomorrow night instead of just showing up after,” Hiro said.

“Not a good plan,” Jason said. “Ooh, smell that. I missed garlic.”

They were in the kitchen of Jason’s cloud houseboat as Jason prepared an evening meal.

“How much garlic are you putting in there?” Taika asked.

“Sopa de ajo literally means ‘soup of garlic,’ so a lot.”

“It’s a costume party,” Hiro said. “You could come in disguise.”

“Erika does love those,” Jason said. “What would I go as, though? I’m not looking to steal Erika’s thunder on her birthday. I wouldn’t want anyone finding out who I was in the middle of it and causing a huge commotion. It’s not like I packed a Zorro outfit and I’m not running around in the outfit they keep showing on the news.”

“I got you this,” Taika said, putting a shopping bag on the table. He took out a spring- action lightsaber toy. “I went with the red blade because your outfit seemed pretty dark.”

“You think I should go as a lord of the Sith?”

“Bro, you pretty much are a lord of the Sith. You look less evil without the villain beard, though.”

“I needed to shave it for something I was doing today. I’ll grow it back after dinner.”

“You can just grow back hair?” Taika asked.

“I have some magic hair growth ointment.”

“Of course you do,” Hiro said. “So, are you going to go to the party?”

“I’ll think about it,” Jason said. “I would like to see how they’re doing before I come back from the dead.”

***

While the meeting with his sister awaited him in the evening, the morning found Jason uncharacteristically restless and nervy. He went through his training routine, including combat training with Shade. Shade had a comprehensive expertise with the Order of the Reaper’s techniques and his ability to generate physical force and create multiple bodies made him a useful instructor.

Jason used his meditation session to settle himself. Afterwards, to keep himself distracted, he decided to undertake a project he’d been thinking about and create a simple but original magical item. The magic theory collection he inherited from Farrah didn’t have any advanced materials on artifice, the study of magic item creation. It did have some comprehensive, foundational works, however.

Farrah’s ritual magic specialty was related to formations and arrays, which had some interdisciplinary crossover with artifice. Formations were permanent or semi-permanent ritual effects, while arrays were formations layered in sequence or even atop one another. The array of ritual effects on the Network’s headquarters was beyond Jason’s ability to decipher, but he had no doubt that Farrah would have handled it easily.

After Clive’s months of tutelage, Jason was able to take in the fundamentals of artifice theory in a few hours. His existing skill book knowledge was incredibly useful in enhancing comprehension, as was his spirit attribute. Improved memory and learning speed were both aspects of spirit attribute enhancement that frequently went overlooked by adventurers. Jason learned of it from Clive, during one of many early attempts to get Jason more engaged with magical theory.

Jason’s project was to create a new variation of his throwing darts, the simple magic item he knew best. His plan was to combine some simple magic with materials produced by the chemical and engineering knowledge of his own world.

After plotting out the initial test design, he needed some materials. Some were basic stuff he had taken into the astral space and he had a decent amount of leftover. He’d done a good job of hoarding his limited resources, always prioritising powers over wasting his consumables. Many of the non-magical materials for his project would require a trip to the hardware store.

He left the houseboat and was walking along the pier when he heard someone yell out.

“Kaito!”

Jason turned at the sound of his brother’s name, but what he saw was someone jogging along the pier, waving at him. Jason recognised him as Lawrence, one of his high school contemporaries.

“Kaito,” Lawrence greeted as he caught up. “Hey, man. I haven’t seen you in what? Six years.”

“Something like that,” Jason said. “How’ve you been, Lawman?”

Lawrence laughed.

“Lawman,” he said, shaking his head. “I haven’t heard that in a long time. I’m just back in town selling my old man’s boat. You’re looking good, man. I’ve heard you’ve got, what? Three kids now?”

“Two,” Jason said.

“Right. I never picked you for the settling down type. With that Amy girl, too. She did get hot that last year of high school, but hadn’t you left by then? I thought she’d end up with your brother.”

“So did he,” Jason said.

“Oh, you dog,” Lawrence chortled. “I was sorry to hear about your brother, though.”

“Thanks.”

“We should catch a drink while I’m in town.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Jason said. “Two kids, man. Just getting a good night’s sleep is a win.”

“Yeah, no thanks,” Lawrence said. “This is why I like a nice, clean, child support payment. I haven’t seen any of mine and I’m not going to. I make sure the baby-mamas know better than to let the little filth balls anywhere near me if they want those payments to clear nice and promptly.”

“It sounds like you’ve found the lifestyle that’s right for you,” Jason said.

“Damn right. All it took was a few loans from my dad and I’ve got a thriving business. Alright, I’ll see you around, brother!”

Jason watched with distaste as Lawrence walked away. It felt like the man’s personality somehow left an oily residue.

***

Jason went to a hardware store to make some purchases. When he arrived at the one he knew, it turned out to have been replaced by a fish shop. Jason was reminded that the world hadn’t sat still in the six years since he last came home and he had to look up a new hardware store on his phone. He could only find one of the big warehouse chains having presumably squeezed out the local proprietors. At least the large store was able to supply him with the things he was looking for.

After returning home, he didn’t immediately dig into his purchases. He found himself processing having been mistakenly recognised as his brother. It was a little unnerving as it was usually a mistake made only by the deeply racist. For all of Lawrence’s many faults, that was not one of them. Lawrence hadn’t known Jason or his brother well and it had been a long time ago, but it was still startling.

Jason found himself in front of a mirror. Now that he looked, he could see the resemblance. The physique-refining process of going up two ranks had significantly enhanced the family resemblance. His skin was clearer, the chin less pronounced. Jason’s face was still more angular than his brother’s. His mouth moved more easily into a grin than Kaito’s signature, easygoing smile. He flashed that smile in the mirror with the open, inviting casualness that Kaito naturally exuded. It was something Jason had spent years working to emulate.

Looking at that smile in the mirror, he really did look like his brother. The smile fell away, the sparkling eyes replaced with a cold stare. He frowned unhappily and the mirror dissolved back into cloud-stuff, sinking into the wall.

***

“What are you doing?” Hiro asked as he and Taika returned to the houseboat. Jason was on the deck stirring the contents of a large tub with a stick.

“Making a ballistic gel mixture,” Jason said. “I couldn’t get exactly what I was after at the hardware store, but I picked up what should be a good substitute. Once I make some adjustments based on what I found in the internet, anyway. Did you get a good car?”

As Hiro’s last car had not been released from the police due to having been shot a number of times, they had been out procuring a new one. Hiro’s brother, Jason’s father, had driven them to Castle Heads, which was the wealthiest of the small towns making up the Greater Casselton area.

“Wasn’t a problem,” Hiro said.

“That Castle Heads is a fancy town,” Taika said. “It’s all boutique stores and big houses. You don’t see a lot of small towns with European car dealerships.”

“I called in on your grandmother while I was there,” Hiro said.

“Yeah?” Jason said. “How did your Mum respond to you turning over a new leaf?”

“It’s a work in progress,” Hiro said evasively. “Your father wanted to come check out where we were staying. I told him I’d show him around on Sunday, so no getting nervous and backing out on the big reveal.”

“It never crossed my mind,” Jason lied.

***

Jason sat on a chair in his room. He’d distracted himself with his project for a while but once again his mind was occupied by the upcoming reunion with his family. If it were just that he’d been away, that was one thing. But even without them thinking he was dead, there was a lot of baggage there.

On first arriving in town, Jason had sent Shade to seek out watch over his sister, his father and his niece. If the Network or anyone else made a move against them, he wanted to be ready to respond. Thus far, he had respected their privacy enough to have Shade keep what he saw to himself.

“Mr Asano,” Shade said. “Your niece seems likely to become involved in an altercation in the immediate future.”

“Is it Network?”

“Not that I am aware of,” Shade said. “Perhaps you should see for yourself.”

Jason closed his eyes and sank his consciousness, projecting his senses through Shade’s distant body. It was occupying an innocuous shadow on the grounds of Jason’s old school. He immediately spotted his twelve year-old niece, Emi, in the same academy uniform he once wore. She was marching up to a group of boys picking on another student.

“Leave him alone, Bryce,” she said to the obvious ringleader. Bryce was quite a bit larger than her but she positioned herself between him and the boy slinking against the wall in fear. She planted her feet in front of Bryce and tilted her head back to glare up at him.

“Screw off, Emi,” Bryce said.

“Not going to happen, Bryce,” she said,

“Are you looking to get beaten up?”

“Where did you learn to bully people?” she asked. “Eighties movies? Do it online like a regular person.”

“I’m not afraid to hit a girl, Emi.”

Emi smiled at him like he was an idiot.

“The way I see it, Bryce, you have three options. One, you walk away. Spoiler: this is the smart choice. Option two is that you and your friends beat up a girl, which will not go well for you. Option three is a girl beats you up, which will go even worse. So, are you going to back it up or get yourself in more trouble than your daddy can get you out of?”

“You think I’m afraid of you?” Bryce snarled.

“No,” Emi said. “I think you’re afraid of what happens when my mum changes her mind about catering your mum’s party, though. How does your dad normally take it when you stop your mother from getting something she wants. Sorry, step mother. The new one is quite pretty, isn’t she?”

Bryce paled.

“I’m going to let you go this time,” he said, and started to leave. “Count yourself lucky.”

Emi turned her gaze to the boy up against the wall.

“Thanks Emi,” he said miserably.

“Grow some balls, Hunter,” she told him. “Your name literally means someone who kills things.”

Jason withdrew his senses from Shade with a chuckle.

“She hasn’t changed,” he said happily.

“She seems quite intelligent for her age,” Shade said. “I believe I recognised some behavioural traits, there.”

“Yeah, she’s smart like her Mum.”

Jason stood and opened up his inventory to the outfit tabs. His old iron-rank combat robes had significantly more grey than his black bronze-rank one and were distinct enough from the images of the Starlight Rider that he was satisfied. He closed his inventory and went out where Hiro and Taika were watching more of Jason’s interdimensional travel vlog.

“Bro, your friend looks like Ron Perlman from that show with the woman from Terminator 2.”

“Gary? Yeah, he’s a great guy. Where did you put that lightsaber?”

“Still in the kitchen,” Taika said.

“So you’re going to the party?” Hiro asked.

“Yeah,” Jason said.

“I wanted to go too,” Taika said. “I don’t have a costume or know any of your family, though. I just like parties.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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