On the way back from picking Emi up at school, Jason suggested they take advantage of the warm day. Casselton had pleasant winters as it were and the afternoon temperature had climbed into the high twenties. The unseasonable heat was begging the beach town’s residents into the cool waters of the Pacific.
On hearing that Jason didn’t have any swimwear, Emi had insisted on stopping to pick some up. CB Surf and Bike sold mostly surf gear in the summer and mountain bike accessories during the winter. Most of the winter tourism was from mountain bikers taking advantage of the mild weather and preponderance of bush trails that snaked through the Casselton region.
That left a limited selection of surf wear, given the season, but it was not an issue to pick up some boardshorts. He also grabbed rash shirts for himself and his niece, which would cover up his scars as well as protect them from abrasions if they took a spill during the surprise Jason had planned.
On reaching the houseboat, Emi’s own swimwear and a change of clothes was retrieved from her house via portal. She and Jason were soon skimming across the water on a pair of black jet skis, heading away from the marina. They moved parallel to the shore, past the big houses with small private docks and the scraggly stretch of bush where kids were playing in the creek outlet. The kids looked up as Emi whooped and hollered at them from the back of her jet ski, returning Emi’s wave.
Jason and Emi continued on, out in front of the small town’s eponymous beach. It looked like they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the heat after school, with the white, sandy shore full enough that the Surf Life Saving Club had people out on full patrol. They rode their jet skis into the shore, leaving them as they wandered up to the caravan park tuck shop across the road and Jason purchased them an ice cream each.
Emi was approached by some of her friends who were also at the beach. Emi had lived in Casselton Beach for a year and, like both of her uncles, was quick to make friends. She happily showed off the jet skis, which rapidly cemented Jason as the cool uncle. Emi and Jason took off again, Jason steering them back toward the houseboat when Shade informed him that Erika was wrapping up at work. Jason and Emi each claimed a bathroom to shower in, emerging not long before Erika’s arrival.
“You need to talk to Mum,” Erika told him as she stepped from the pier onto the lower deck.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Jason said. “Yourself?”
“She’s been calling me constantly since yesterday,” Erika said. “If she weren’t dealing with all of Nanna’s stuff she wouldn’t leave me alone at all.”
“When can we go see Grand Nanna?” Emi asked emerging from the houseboat to join them on the lower deck.
“Tomorrow,” Erika told her. “I’ll pick you up from school and we’ll go straight out to Great Uncle Robbo’s farm.”
“Can’t we just teleport?” Emi asked.
“Sorry, Moppet,” Jason said, ruffling her wet hair. “I’ve got an important meeting tomorrow.”
“Uncle Jason,” Emi complained, straightening her hair with her fingers.
“Erika, I’m a little surprised you didn’t send Mum here,” Jason said.
“Oh yeah, to the magic houseboat made of clouds,” Erika said. “As if springing your resurrection on her at the hospital wasn’t bad enough. I know you and Mum have issues, but dragging this out is just being a dick.”
“Mum, you said a bad word,” Emi said.
“Emi,” Erika said. “What did I tell you about swearing?”
“That it’s an arbitrary assignment of negative value to words with no inherent negative value based on outmoded moral strictures,” Emi groaned.
“Good girl,” Erika said.
“You know my teachers don’t see it that way,” Emi muttered.
“That’s why you have to use your judgement,” Erika said. “Social context is important. At Uncle Robbo’s farm you hear all kinds of words not appropriate for the school setting.”
“Uncle Robbo keeps trying to get me to drink beer,” Emi said. “I’m not sure that’s a healthy educational environment.”
“He used to do that to me too,” Jason said, then switched to a gravelly voice. “Go on, Jason, just a sip. It’ll put hair on your chest.”
“He said the exact same thing to me,” Erika laughed.
“I don’t want hair on my chest,” Emi said. “Also, beer definitely doesn’t do that.”
“Alright, Emi,” Erika said. “I need to talk with your uncle for a bit, so go get a start on your homework.”
Emi grumbled but retrieved her school bag and made her way up to the top deck while Erika and Jason went inside.
“I’ve curated the next set of recording crystals to avoid things Emi isn’t ready for,” Jason said. “I’ve set the crystals out in the media room, so once Dad and Ian get here, you can dive straight in while I go see Mum.”
“What is it that you’ve taken out?” Erika asked.
“Some of the things I did. And were done to me. The real nasty stuff isn’t until later, but I don’t think Emi is ready for my ruminations on the ethics of killing people. Especially since those early ones are me being foolish and naïve about it.”
“Then you really did…?”
The brother and sister looked at each other in silence for a long time.
“With everything going on around you after coming back,” Erika finally said, “I’m not sure if I asked you how you’re doing. Are you okay, Jason?”
“Being home helps,” he said. “I had a good talk with Dad. I spent a few hours out at his hill.”
“You visited the dirt pile,” Erika said. “You can see how many years it’ll take to get that into any kind of reasonable shape.”
“It’s certainly ambitious,” Jason said. “I think it might go faster than you think, though.”
“You’re talking about magic?” Erika asked. “I can’t believe I’m talking about magic like it’s a regular thing. You know you’ve turned my life insane, right?”
“When will you tell Kaito everything?” Erika asked.
“I’m not sure. I’m hoping to get a much better understanding of the local situation tomorrow, after which I’ll be in a better position to make decisions going forward.”
“Alright,” Erika said. “Jason, about those crystals you didn’t want Emi to see.”
“Shade has them,” Jason said. “Just ask and he’ll give them to you.”
Jason sat in his mother’s darkened apartment watching a crystal recording that heavily featured Farrah. Her guidance had been so important to him in his early days in the other world, although it wasn’t until after she died that he realised how often she had been right and he had been wrong. It hadn’t stopped him from running his mouth, as projecting confidence had never been an issue for him, even when he had none.
Shade told Jason that his mother was arriving and he shut off the recording, returning the projector to his inventory.
Cheryl trudged from her car into the elevator, her head swirling with revelations and stress. She hadn’t been into the office in two days, which was completely unlike her, even over the weekend. After her mother’s miraculous recovery, she had been spending her time at Robert’s farm, helping her mother get settled.
As if that weren’t enough, her dead son had returned to life, only to vanish on her all over again. After the shellshock revelation at the hospital, she had been trying to get more information out of her other children. Kaito didn’t seem to know any more than Cheryl herself, while Erika was being obstructionist. Her own daughter refused to tell her where she could find the son impossibly risen from the grave, with their last few phone calls devolving into screaming matches.
She tapped the key card to access her apartment.
“You don’t need to bother with the alarm,” a voice said as she stepped inside. “It’s already off.”
Her son’s voice was deeper than before. She looked at the silhouette sitting in the dark in one of her arm chairs. She flicked on the light, revealing him in full. She had only seen him briefly in the hospital, but now she started cataloguing the changes. Along with his voice was the beard and the small scars on his face. The eyes were the same, dark and hostile.
“I thought I lost you.”
“You did,” Jason said, getting up out of the chair.
She moved forward to hug him, only to be struck by a wave of dread that sent her staggering back. Her hair stood up on end as her instincts screamed danger, until the sensation passed. Looking around, there was no indication of what had caused the sensation, yet she was certain it had come from her son.
“What was that?” she asked, rattled.
“Explanations will come,” he said. “Not tonight.”
She was unsure of what to do with herself, standing in the middle of the room but not willing to try moving forward again.
“How did you even get in here?” she asked.
“Mysteriously,” he said. “I’m mysterious now.”
She was having a hard time recognising her own son, but she caught a glimpse of the boy she remembered in the moment of silliness.
“Jason, after you died…”
“You still had the son you liked, so no big loss.”
“How can you say that?” she asked.
“Years of observational evidence. Kaito and Amy I get. We made choices that hurt each other. Their choices a lot more than mine, but we were all young and stupid. It took me a long time to get there, but I’m ready to try forgiving them. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be – I haven’t moved past it as much as I thought – but I can do it.”
He shook his head.
“But you,” he continued. “You weren’t young. You weren’t mired in hormones, love and friendship all tangled up in a rat’s nest. You were meant to be the detached one. I know parents have favourites, Mum, but you could have tried to hide it at least a little.”
“What I was trying to do was hold the family together through what was obviously going to be a crisis.”
“And how did you do it? The same way you did everything: by stepping on me.”
“It’s not like that, Jason.”
“I know you loved me, Mum,” Jason said, voice dropping soft and low as he bowed his head. “But I also know that you really didn’t like me.”
“That isn’t how it was, Jason.”
“You think I’m pulling that out of thin air? You spent twenty years showing me how you felt.”
“You weren’t the easiest child, Jason.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise it was hard,” Jason said. “That’s egg on my face, I guess. Sorry, just forget everything I said, then. Good seeing you, Mum.”
She skittered out of the way as he made for the door and opened it.
“I came back home for reconciliation,” he said softly, pausing in the doorway. “I know I haven’t helped, here, but there were things I needed to say before I had any chance of moving forward.”
Cheryl steeled her nerve and rushed at her son, grasping him tightly in a hug.
“My boy has come back to me,” she whispered, sending a shudder though his body.
“You need to stop bothering Erika,” he said softly as he extricated himself. “I’ll be around for a while, so look after Nanna. We’ll see each other again soon.”
Ken and Ian left the houseboat after another session of watching recording crystals, Ian taking Emi home with him. Erika remained behind, watching one of the recording crystals she retrieved from Shade. The recording was of Jason in what she had come to recognise as his lodgings in the strange, magical city he had been living in.
“I killed some people today,” image Jason said. “They weren’t the first, and they were coming to kill us. I was on a job, escorting a shipment of magic coins.”
He laughed, shaking his head in disbelief.
“This is my life, now. We were in these amazing sand skimmers, which is like an airboat, but for sand. Then we got attacked by – get this – sand pirates! Crazy right? They swept in and we fought them off. It was awesome.”
He hung his head.
“It wasn’t until after I got back that it occurred to me that I’d just killed eight people. And it was fun. Fun. Even now, I have trouble feeling bad about it. It’s not like they were going to let us live, but protecting ourselves should be a grim necessity, right?”
“I’m starting to become afraid of what I’m turning into. What happens when I stop caring about human life altogether? I’m dangerous now. If I ever get home, will you even recognise the person I’ve become?”
The recoding came to an end and Erika sat staring into the space it had been. Caught up in her thoughts, she was startled when Shade appeared at the door.
“Mrs Asano, your brother will shortly be arriving in the lounge.”
She was waiting for Jason when he appeared through a portal arch.
“You saw Mum?” she asked.
“You didn’t show her the crazy teleport door, did you?”
“Of course not.”
“Because I’m still processing all of this,” Erika said. “Emi’s young and she adapts quickly, but Ian and I are feeling pretty adrift.”
“I know,” Jason said. “The world is a different place, now.”
Erika thought back to the troubled boy on the recording, afraid of what his family would see in him. The man in front of her was certainly changed. For good or ill, she didn’t know.
“How did you cope in that place?” she asked. “You were completely alone.”
“I wasn’t,” Jason said. “There were friends to help me. True companions, life and death. Rufus, Gary, Jory, Humphrey. Did you get to the recordings with Clive, yet?”
“You didn’t mention Farrah,” Erika said. “That seems odd given that she clearly was a mentor, even if you were the same age. Did you and her…?”
“No. She was very important to me, a teacher and a friend. Neither of us wanted more than that.”
“That Cassandra woman seems to pop up a bit. You didn’t mention her, either.”
“That we wanted,” Jason said. “She dumped me, eventually. Spoiler alert.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Actually, yeah,” Jason said. “I’d like that.”
After Erika left, Jason sat on the top deck, reading from one of Farrah’s more basic theory texts on magical formations. The heat of the day had cooled with the coming of night but it was still a pleasant evening. In any case, Jason’s bronze-rank body would take a considerable amount of cold to be uncomfortable. His phone rang and he looked at the listed caller.
“Anna,” Jason greeted as he answered. “Last minute scheduling conflict?”
“I wanted to talk about the other outworlder,” Annabeth said and Jason sat up in his chair.
“What about them?”
“I know that getting them out of the Lyon branch’s hands is important to you. We’ve managed to get the international committee to agree to pressure the Lyon branch, but the Network isn’t one large hierarchy. It’s a network of old secret societies and the international committee is more like a United Nations than an overlord. The branches are members, not subordinates, so they can only put as much pressure on Lyon as the members are willing to accept.”
“I get it,” Jason said. “You’re looking for a demonstration that my cooperation is valuable enough for this committee of yours to go to bat for me.”
“That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” Annabeth said. “If you have something like that for us tomorrow, we can get the ball rolling.”
“As it happens, I did prepare something,” Jason said. “I’ll send you a cloud drive link.”
Moments later, Annabeth had her phone on speaker as she scrolled through a file on the screen.
“Is this what I think it is?” she asked.
“Thousands of known essence combinations, plus some basic notes on the general tendencies of those combinations.”
Jason’s living documents of Magic Society knowledge on monsters and essences wouldn’t update while in another universe, but the information already recorded was more than enough to be going on with. In preparation for the meeting, Jason had Shade transcribe the contents of the magic tablet into a digital document.
“Is that the kind of gesture you’re talking about?” Jason asked.
“Yeah,” Annabeth said. “This will do nicely.”