As Shade, in his plane form, continued winging towards Japan, Jason was laying on the bed in a small sleeping cabin. Fresh from the land of the dead that Makassar had become, his mind was troubled. He looked at the door; there was no knock but he felt Asya’s presence on the other side.
“Come in,” he said.
She entered hesitantly, unconsciously touching a hand to the aura-suppression bracelet that kept her from broadcasting her emotions. She had aura control training but Jason’s senses were strong enough that he would passively pick up on them anyway until she was stronger.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Asya said. “Erika thought that maybe you need someone to talk to instead of brooding it out. She said that was your go-to move but you don’t have another six years to learn it isn’t very effective.”
Jason chuckled, despite himself, and sat up on the bed. He patted the spot next to him, even though there was a free chair.
“I’m trying to be healthier,” he said and she sat down.
“I don’t want to complain,” he continued. “Not when I’ve just been to a place where not only did so many die horribly but they weren’t even allowed to rest in peace.”
“You’re entitled to your feelings,” Asya said. “Just because someone else is miserable doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be unhappy for yourself. You just have to keep it in perspective.”
He gave her a sad smile, bumping his shoulder genially into hers.
“Thanks,” he said. “I learned back in debate club that you were smarter than me. And better organised. It’s why I always tried to throw you off with weirdness.”
“You try and throw everyone off with weirdness.”
“Yeah, but I eventually spotted the little streak of weird in you too. You hide it under all this well-groomed competence but I remember when I was using the difference between vehicle Voltron and Lion Voltron as an analogy for the positive aspects of authoritarianism and you completely turned it around on me, without missing beat.”
“I remember that,” she chuckled.
“I almost asked you out after that.”
“Princess Asya was not meant to have even heard of Voltron, let alone know that much about vehicle Voltron, even though it’s the crap one. Be still my heart.”
“But you didn’t ask me out.”
“No,” he said, shoulders slumping. “You know how it was.”
“I do,” she said sadly. “Can I be honest?”
“I’ve always hated Amy’s guts.”
Jason burst out laughing.
“I think we can add character judgement to the list of things you’re better at than I am. Although I'm pretty sure, at this point, the list is just most of the things."
“Don’t sell yourself short, Jason. Do you have any idea how intimidating you are?”
“Of course I am. I have spooky magic powers.”
“Not like that,” she said. “Not to strangers. I’m talking about to people who know you. I was born with every advantage. My family had money and influence. My education was the best, not just the academy but private tutors, international study trips just for me and my brothers. I had so much going for me and I worked so hard to make the most of it. I had this life plan. Federal police. Federal bureaucrat. Federal office. I was going to be Prime Minister one day.”
“I believe you,” Jason said sincerely. “If that still happens, please do something about media monopolisation.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she laughed, “but don’t get your hopes up. When the Network recruited me, I discovered a whole new world where I could not just do but become things I never imagined.”
“When I discovered magic I found out I could get hit with a shovel a lot and then sacrificed.”
“My introduction was more measured,” she said, “but it was also more shackled. You were thrown in a world full of wildness and danger and you didn’t just survive, but thrive.”
“Technically I didn’t survive,” he said.
“Life threw you in the fire and you came out reforged. You came back, striding across the world like you owned it. You were always confident, Jason, but there was a hollowness to it. After getting to know you, I realised that a lot of it was façade. Not anymore.”
“I was a teenager. Of course it was empty confidence.”
“When the Network recruited me, I was so impressed with myself for becoming a person worthy of being drawn into a world of magic. But you were literally drawn into a world of magic, facing dangers and having experiences I can’t imagine, even now. Being a functionary for the Network seemed so amazing until you let me see your recordings. The things you saw. The things you did.”
Jason bowed his head.
“There’s so much those recording don’t show,” he said. “I was so scared. And when I thought about coming home, I was thinking of Erika cooking barbecue by the beach while I played with Emi. Not wading through an army of the dead that I failed to save in the first place."
He bowed his head.
“I don’t think I’m built for this,” he whispered. “I’m not the guy who saves the world. I’m the comic relief sidekick.”
“No one is asking you to save the world.”
“We haven’t told you the real reason we’re so adamant about getting to Japan, have we? I’m sure you’ve realised it’s more than just visiting the Asano clan.”
“I assumed you’d tell me when you are ready. My being part of the Network complicates things, I know.”
He turned to look directly at her.
“I’ve always found that trusting in people, rather than the groups they belong to, has always steered me right. I don’t trust the Network to do what’s right or best, but I trust you to at least try.”
“You’re not a comic relief sidekick, Jason. You’re a bunny-ears lawyer.”
“You think so?”
“No one is ambivalent to you Jason. I hate to break it to you, but as long as I’ve known you, everyone has either really liked you or really didn’t but put up with you for one reason or another. Anna would put you in a rocket and fire you into the sun if not for the loot hose you’ve been spraying into her branch.”
“I got that impression.”
“I’ve been on both sides of that coin. When you first swaggered into debate club, spewing nonsense at a hundred kilometres an hour, I wanted you gone so badly. Your actual debate skills were never great, but you always had that way of pulling people into your pace. So I tolerated you until I realised I wasn’t just tolerating you anymore. You’d dug under my skin, like a tick.”
“Like a tick? Any chance of getting a better simile?”
“Nope,” she said with a grin. “You are everything I should hate. I prepare, you improvise. I’m professional; you’re casual to the point of self-destructiveness. I always take the best path while you blow up the path, use it to make a new path that’s all wonky and doesn’t go the right way, yet somehow you get where you’re going. Mostly.”
“The trick is to not worry about the destination.”
“I always worry about the destination. You take the risks I never would, with the courage to accept the consequences I never could.”
“You make me sound kind of awesome.”
“This would be the part where you tell me the things you like about me.”
“Oh, I hated you too. So stuck up, as if meeting people’s expectations was some kind of higher calling. Obviously, I was attracted anyway. I was sixteen and you were so smart and sharp, like an evil lady torturer. Plus, you already looked like the winning entry in a design an absurdly gorgeous woman contest.”
“I’m not sure you understand how compliments work.”
“I told you that I hated you at the start. I thought you were just another rich-prick automaton, built from your parents' money. Then I started catching glimpses behind the curtain. Why did a rich girl in 2010 know anything about Tom Selleck’s moustache? Then there was the way you throw yourself so hard into everything. You put on this reserved face but you show your passion with how much you invest in everything you do. That was kind of annoying in debate club but watching you kite surf was one of the sexiest things I have ever seen. How were you that good?”
“I took lessons.”
“Of course you did. It makes total sense that you tried to join the Federal Police, overshot and wound up in the magic police. I bet you overdid it there, too.”
“I originally signed up for tactical,” she admitted. “I wanted to learn how to use my powers properly. They let me do the training because they let anyone with an essence set, but they pushed me into a management track. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I never ended up using cores.”
“That drive you have is still very sexy.”
“Most men I meet don’t like that about me,” she whispered. “They want to slow me down, bring me to heel. They look at everything I’ve done for my own ambition like I’m filling out my wife resume and expect me to give it up and settle down.”
“You must know a lot of really dumb guys.”
“My mother likes to set me up. I never really got over this weirdo I knew in high school, though.”
“He must have been really good looking.”
“He had a chin that could cut glass, but he’s had a lot of work done.”
“I have not had any work do–”
His indignation was cut off by a pair of soft lips pressing into his.
When Jason and Asya returned to the main cabin, all eyes turned to them.
“What?” Jason asked.
Erika shook her head, although a smile played at the corners of her mouth.
“You could at least be a little discreet,” Yumi told him.
“Shade,” Jason whispered. “Did you soundproof the cabin like I told you?”
“You can’t soundproof social cues, Mr Asano.”
“Yeah, that’s fair. Where’s Emi?”
“In the cockpit,” Shade said. “I’m teaching her to fly a plane.”
Jason and Erika were sitting in the cockpit together while Emi was back telling her great grandmother all about what she’d learned. They relaxed with glasses of ice tea and looked out at the open sky.
“So, Asya,” Erika said.
“Uh, yeah. I know it doesn’t seem like the time.”
“It’s exactly the time,” Erika said. “I’ve been watching you pull deeper and deeper into yourself, Jason and I’ve seen where that leads when the only ones relying on you are me and Emi. I don’t want to see that when the stakes are so much higher. In times like these, you should take the joys you can find.”
“Maybe next time don’t take them in a confined space with my daughter nearby.”
“Sorry. It wasn’t really planned.”
“So, is this a thing, now, or were you just blowing off steam?”
“We haven’t talked about it but it’s a thing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns, though.”
“Like your plans to traipse off to another universe?”
“Are you worried that she’ll want to go with you, or that she won’t?”
“I don’t know. Both, somehow, if that makes any sense. My biggest worry is that she’s more invested than I am, emotionally. I’m not saying I don’t feel anything, but she’s further down that road than I am.”
“Baby brother, it doesn’t matter where you are now. It matters where you’re going. If you both end up in the same place, then great. If not, then you have bigger concerns than a relationship that didn’t work. Try and figure it out before you drag her off to another universe, though, yeah?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“She had a thing for you back in school, right?”
“It wasn’t wholly unreciprocated,” Jason said. “But then Amy…”
“Did it never occur to you that Amy finally taking you off the shelf right as you took a healthy interest in someone else wasn’t a coincidence?”
“I’m not a complete idiot.”
Erika looked at him from under raised eyebrows.
Emi was back in the cockpit while Jason watched her listen to Shade's flight instructions with an adorable look of concentration on her face. Asya opened the door, calling Jason back into the main cabin with the other passengers.
“I was just contacted by the Network,” Asya explained. “Details are still sketchy, but it’s looking like as many as nineteen countries are about to divest themselves from the Network.”
“Divest themselves how?” Farrah asked.
“The information I have suggests it will vary by country,” Asya explained. “We don’t have anything solid yet but none of it is good. Reports are ranging from expelling Network personnel to forcibly seizing Network infrastructure.”
“Doing that now is madness,” Akari said.
“No,” Jason said. “The grid is about to come back online. Assuming you knew that, it would be the perfect time to swoop in.”
“He’s right,” Asya said. “The EOA are making their end run. All the countries in question are having them take on the Network’s responsibilities.”
“The EOA doesn’t have the people or the resources,” Farrah said. “Or access to the grid.”
“Which is about to put the Network in an awkward position,” Asya said. “Does the Network fight the local government and stay present anyway? If we do, suddenly we look like a despotic force and support for us around the world dries up. If we accept being tossed out, suddenly we have a nasty choice. Either leave those nations to be overrun by monster waves, or give the EOA the tools, knowledge and access to the grid to stop them.”
“Giving the EOA the legitimacy and power it has always been after,” Jason said. “Which countries?”
“Indonesia is the lynchpin,” Asya said. “They aren’t happy about magical factions either ignoring or running roughshod over them. The EOA swooped in and made similar approaches to other nations. Venezuela, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, the Philippines, Taiwan.”
“Taiwan?” Jason asked.
“The Network is very established in China.”
“What is the Network’s response?” Farrah asked.
“I don’t know,” Asya said.
“It doesn’t change what we have to do,” Jason said. “Not unless Japan is on that list.”
“It’s not,” Asya said.
“Alright, then,” Jason said. “It’s not like we could do anything about it, anyway. We do what we can do and leave diplomacy to the diplomats.”