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Jason stood on the patio, looking out at the yard. He sensed her approach but didn’t turn around.

“I wasn’t sure it was really you,” Amy said, talking to his back. “The others don’t realise how different you are, yet. There’s the physical stuff. The chin, obviously, but the beard hides that a little. The scars. You’re a little taller. But that’s not all. You move differently. Sit differently. You don’t watch your surroundings the same way. It used to be with curiosity but now it’s something else. Wariness? At first I thought you might be some kind of impostor, trying to scam the family for money.”

“But now you know it’s me.” Jason said.

“Yes.”

Jason turned to face her.

“What clinched it?” he asked.

“You’re hurt and angry. You can talk about letting it go and moving on, and you’re trying. It’s not so easy, though, is it?”

“No,” Jason said.

“I am sorry I hurt you Jason.”

“I’m sorry you hurt me too. It’s one of those things, isn’t it? You don’t want to but you’re just so damn good at it.”

“I know you had Erika in Melbourne, but did you have anyone for support while you were away? You don’t do so well all on your own, Jason.”

“I have friends. Good friends. I had to leave them behind, though. I came back as unexpectedly as I left.”

“You never did explain that properly,” Amy said. “Or at all. You’re lying about Africa.”

“Everything I said is accurate.”

“That’s not the same as telling the truth.”

“No it’s not,” he agreed.

She sighed.

“You know, you weren’t the only one to lose the most important relationship in your life.”

“I wasn’t the one who destroyed it,” he said.

“You did your part,” she countered. “You’re too smart and introspective to not have figured that out by now.”

“Leaving me I understand,” he said. “But the way you did it? You knew me better than anyone. You had the knowledge and the tools to hurt me more than anyone else could. And you did.”

“I told myself it had to be a clean cut,” she said. “That if I didn’t put a thorough end to it, then there would always be something there.”

“It wasn’t clean,” Jason said. “And there will always be something there.”

“I know,” she said. “We both hurt one another when that was the opposite of what we wanted. After you died, Kaito and I had a lot of talks about what we did. To you.”

“I wasn’t just hurt, Amy. Take it from some who’s been destroyed more than once; if you wanted thorough, you got exactly what you were after.”

“What happened to you, Jason?”

“You did, remember?”

“I didn’t pay for that crazy car in the drive. Where do you make that kind of money?”

“I’ve been working.”

“As a private security contractor, you said. Did you find some gold out in the desert or something?”

“Actually, yes.”

“You never used to lie to me.”

“I still haven’t.”

“Then why are you still holding back? You can talk about reconciliation all you like, but I see the anger behind those eyes. You’re seething with it.”

Jason turned away again.

“My anger can hurt people, Amy.”

“Really? You’re the Incredible Hulk, now?”

Jason had excellent aura control. There was only one person who could make him lose it enough that it flared out, sending Amy staggering back. He quickly restrained it, knowing he should feel sorrier than he was. He turned to see her looking at him fearfully.

“What was that?” she asked

“I told you my anger can hurt people. Not a metaphor, Amy.”

He strode into the house.

***

Keith knocked on the open door as he appeared in the doorway of Annabeth’s office.

“What did I tell you?” he asked.

“They went for it?” Annabeth asked, getting up from behind her desk.

“The committee has tentatively approved opening preliminary negotiations with Asano.”

“Tentative, preliminary negotiations?” Annabeth asked. “You don’t want to qualify that some more?”

“Seriously, Anna,” Keith said with a voice full of weariness. “Learn to take a win.”

“What about Miranda?” Annabeth asked.

“She was a loud voice, but also a solitary one. There’s a reason that no one else spoke up at that meeting.”

“Yeah, because hedging your bets is always a sign of decisive leadership.”

“Good job on the biker spin,” Keith said, firmly changing the subject. “Getting the State Police Commissioner to start talking up a drugs crackdown was a solid move. ‘Drug-fuelled biker frenzy’ is a nice sound bite.”

“Riling up reactionary sentiment about drug use may not be great for society,” Annabeth said, “but it sure helps us right now. The Cabal stepped up on this one and largely cleaned up their own mess. Craig Vermillion really has them convinced that Asano represents an opportunity and they know that their relationship with Asano goes out the window if we set him on a war footing.”

“I think the opportunity he represents is what got us over the top,” Keith said. “When you look at what he did to our French guest, it’s clear that putting him down would cost us. Inversely, that means he’s potentially a treasure-trove.”

“How are things going with the Lyon branch?” Annabeth asked.

“Slowly. They haven’t gone much past admitting they have someone, somewhere in custody. They refuse to say who or why, despite the fact that we know. Did you get anything from the Frenchman?”

“He’s not talking. No surprises there.”

“Can you go harder?” Keith asked.

“I don’t need the International Committee strictures to know not to torture people, Keith. Interrogation works; it just takes time. Right now he’s still waiting for his branch to get him back. Once he realises that we’re not giving him back any time soon, the doubt will start to seep in. When we get him to engage, we’re on the path. We’re not giving him back any time soon, right?”

“Definitely not. We’re milking this debacle for everything we can get. The Lyon branch is actually offering some generous concessions; they really want us to stop asking about their prisoner.”

“Please tell me that the committee isn’t going to give him up without pushing the Lyon branch on their outworlder.”

“They won’t. They’ve realised how important the outworlders are.”

“I’m not sure that they have. That any of us have for that matter. I had my team put together a dossier on everything we have on outworlders. I’ll forward it to you, but the gist is that the Network may be about to go through the largest change since the manifestations started escalating more than a century ago.”

“It’s already happening,” Keith said. “We have kept the lid on this incident, but sooner or later, the secret will break. Once we revealed ourselves to the governments, it was only a matter of time.”

“What happens when it really breaks?” Annabeth asked. “I know there are plans in place.”

“Yes, but you know what they say about plans,” Keith said. “I’m not allowed to share them below the committee level, anyway. That’s true for every branch.”

“You think Miranda is adhering to that?”

“That’s her mistake to make,” Keith said. “You need to focus on cracking the Frenchman and making some kind of agreement with Asano. Obviously he won’t be joining the fold, after what happened.”

“Maybe we can mash our problems together” Annabeth said. “I’m willing to bet that Asano left quite an impression.”

“Does he know Asano got away from his men?” Keith asked.

“Nope.”

“So, if Asano walked in on him, apropos of nothing…”

“It might give him a jolt we can use,” Anna said. “We just have to convince Asano that he can walk in here without us closing a net on him. So, who is going to do the negotiating?”

“You and me, plus a government liaison.”

Anna groaned.

“I know,” Keith said.

“They’ve been pressuring us to send the Frenchman back home. I hate this government so much. There isn’t a foreign interest they don’t fall over themselves to capitulate to. If they saw a rerun of ’Allo ’Allo they’d try to smuggle secret plans to the French hidden in a sausage.”

“A rerun of what?” Keith asked.

“Never mind.”

“Also, Gladys,” Keith said. “She pushed her way into it and the committee isn’t willing to push back. They know the Brisbane branch has been trying to poach her again.”

“When are we meeting with Asano, then?” Annabeth asked.

“I’ve already contacted Vermillion,” Keith said. “He’s going to set up a time for us, then we’ll go up the coast.”

“We’re giving him home ground advantage?” Annabeth asked.

“Unless you want to meet him in your kitchen again.”

***

Ian and Erika watched out the window as Jason pulled his absurd black sports car into the driveway.

“That’s his car?” Ian asked as the gull wing door on the driver’s side opened vertically and Jason stepped out.

“He’s too young for a mid-life crisis,” Erika said.

“How much do you think it cost?”

“No idea.”

“And he’s a private security contractor?” Ian asked. “I guess shooting brown people for Americans is lucrative. It seems weird. Jason was always so progressive.”

“He was also poor,” Erika said. “I love the boy, but he was always better at holding ideals than living up to them.”

They met Jason at the door and let him in.

“How did you afford that car?” Erika asked without preamble.

“Shooting brown people for Americans,” he said, stepping into the foyer. “Don’t you remember how poor I used be?”

Erika and Ian shared a surprised glace as they went inside. They made their way into the kitchen where Ian started brewing some tea.

“You’re on time,” Erika said to Jason. “Emi isn’t home yet.”

“I know,” Jason said.

“Oh, you do, do you?” Erika asked. “How is that, exactly?”

“Mysteriously,” Jason said. “I’m very mysterious now.”

“Is that so?” Erika asked.

“You think I’m not?”

“I think you should tell us what you were up to all this time,” Erika said. “You have no idea what I went through when I thought you died. People were clearly lying and there was some kind of crazy conspiracy theory cover up. I thought I was going crazy.”

“It did seem like she was going crazy,” Ian agreed.

“You don’t have to worry about that any more,” Jason said. “Now that I’m back, I won’t let anyone treat you that way.”

“I don’t want your protection, Jason,” Erika said. “I want to know what’s going on so I can protect my family for myself.”

“You will,” Jason said. “Consider this a warning, though; once I tell you, there’s no going back.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that when I tell you everything, everything changes. It will upend your most fundamental understandings of the world you live in.”

Erika narrowed her eyes at Jason.

“Did you join a cult?” she asked.

“Of course not.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I didn’t join a cult, Erika.”

“You are talking a little like someone who joined a cult,” Ian said. “It would make sense that you were gone for so long. Cults like to isolate people from their support networks while the indoctrination takes place.”

“I did not join a cult,” Jason insisted.

“So, you’re still an atheist, then?” Erika asked.

“Not as such,” Jason admitted.

“You joined a cult,” Erika said.

“I didn’t join a cult!”

“It really sounds like you joined a cult,” Erika said.

“I did not join a cult. I’m not an atheist because I met a…”

Jason cut himself off, letting out a frustrated sigh.

“Look, set aside a day,” he said. “Make sure Emi is taken care of and you have no other commitments. I’ll tell you everything. It’ll take some time to go through it and even more to process it. I’m not kidding, Erika. This will change your life.”

“Are you going to explain why you were talking about that starlight person on the news?” Erika asked.

“Yes,” Jason said. “I’ll explain it all. Answer every question.”

“Will your cultist friends be there?”

“I should have thrown away that stupid token,” Jason said.

***

Erika and Ian watched through the window as Emi was dropped off by her friend’s mother. She eyed off the black car in the driveway, walking all the way around it before making her way up to the door.

“Whose car is that?” she asked her parents.

“We have something to talk to you about,” Ian told her and the family made their way into the lounge. They sat on the couch, Emi in the middle with a parent on either side.

“You two are acting weird,” Emi said. “This is how you told me about Uncle Jason. Did someone die?”

“No,” Ian said with a chuckle. “Nothing like that.”

“Actually, it’s kind of the opposite,” Erika said.

“Someone came back to life?” Emi asked.

“Still sharp as a tack,” Jason said, appearing in the lounge room doorway. Emi went dead still, staring at him for several seconds. Then she burst forward like she was fired from a rocket, Jason crouching to catch her in a huge hug.

“Hey, moppet,” he said. It was a long time before she let him go, after which she stepped back to critically looked him over, while holding both of his hands in hers.

“You look different,” she said.

“I am different.”

“Did you get some work done?” she asked, letting go of a hand to experimentally poke his chin.

“I did not have any work done,” came his indignant answer.

“Must be an optical illusion with the beard,” she said. “Where did the scars come from?”

“I did some things that certain people didn’t like,” Jason said. “They did some things that I didn’t like.”

“They hurt you?”

“Yes.”

“Did you hurt them back?”

“They got caught and punished by the local authorities,” Jason said.

“Is that your car outside?”

“Would you like a ride? If your parents say it’s alright.”

Emi turned to look at her parents, who glanced at each other before nodding.

“Not too long,” Erika said. “Back in time for dinner.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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