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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - Lessons Learned

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“This way,” Darion said.

‘This way’ involved a great deal more complexity than you’d expect for a corridor. Sclader had been renovating.

“Where are we?”

“Believe it or not, the entrance corridor,” Darion said, standing upon a stair that climbed towards a balcony which in turn descended toward another. “Welcome to the Court of Mirrors, Chang’s latest, greatest offering to the world of Novas.”

“It’s incredible. Where’s the way out?”

“That’s the hard part,” Darion said. “Maybe you can find it. I’ve never been able to.”

Some of the Anavasi were referring to this as ‘an entrance exam’. Sclader, since been afforded the honour of having his work displayed as the very first thing someone would see on entrance, had been tweaking and twisting and altering his creation ever since. Now it was a thing of beauty, not just mathematically perfect, but incorporating precise visual elements as well. Light sources were positioned so as to be warped on the fractal edge of reality, where the hidden numbers did their thing and caused the wrap around effect that made it all so confusing.

Sakura’s face lit up and she ran past Darion to follow the stairs and balconies, seeking the solution to the puzzle.

Darion followed, smiling. It was good to see her relax. Since returning from captivity she had been taut as a bowstring, ready to snap. Many people didn’t see it, but he did. That kept him hovering just outside touching distance, never quite sure where he ought to be.

She wanted contact, he knew. Sakura was one of those people who liked to be hugged. But hugs and simple closeness were not enough when it came to matters of the soul. Her illusions had been ripped away with brutal force. Few Novas emerged from that crucible unscathed. In this case it did no good that Sakura had been through this before. If anything that made things worse, because she had erroneously believed that unpleasant, unwanted past was behind her.

Darion never felt that security. The past was a track and field expert. No matter what hurdles you put in its path, no matter how long the track, it would always be racing up behind, ready to overtake and unmake you in an eyeblink.

They wandered through Sclader’s madhouse for nearly ten minutes before Sakura found the way out. More precisely she found the necessary steps to open the way out. It took a precise movement between the balconies, a physical re-enactment of the mathematical formulae on which the entire work was based. Ingenious, really.

“That was the entrance?” Sakura asked when they emerged from the corridor.

“Uh-huh.”

She smiled. “This is the house that Chang built. I can believe it. I hope it does better than mine.”

“It will,” Darion said, without thinking. “Oh, uh. That was insensitive. What I meant to say is, we have a rather more cynical outlook than other Novas. The Court of Mirrors shines, but the Court of Shadows lurks below. Anybody attacks this place they’ll have horrors boiling up from the depths that’ll make their eyes boil to look on them.”

Such talk did not make Sakura comfortable, he knew, but it was what it was. No point pretending. The number one rule was ‘do not fuck with the Teragen’. It was right next door to ‘do not fuck with the Congo’. Unlike the Storm King the Teragen did not have to play nice, did not have to worry about politics, and would indeed murder your family and everyone you knew if you called their bluff.

Darion did not know the precise fate of Sakura’s kidnapper. He knew that Snow managed to her hands on him. That meant he would die eventually. Eaten, most likely, once she got into a monstrous mood and decided to re-enact one of Meh’Lindi’s past-times.

It would be a slow death, though. She took the whole incident personally. It was not a good idea to make an enemy of a girl who could read a hundred torture manuals in an hour to aid in brainstorming a proper punishment.

He brushed the thoughts away. They weren’t nice, and he did not want them on his mind while Sakura was around. If anyone needed to see some smiles it was her. Though that did raise the question of why he was taking her to see Chang. She had never been known for smiling much.

“So where is she?” Sakura asked.

“Oh, you’ll see. This place brings the artist out of everyone.” He gave her a wink and linked arms. “Come on.”

He guided her to the heart of the Court of Mirrors, to the enormous and normally empty chamber around which all the other rooms, corridors and amenities were constructed.

It was not empty now.

The entirety of the interior was filled with mirrors. The floor war mirrors, the walls, the roof over their heads. A corridor opened up into many corridors. Sakura and Darion were reflected a thousand thousand times, caught on angles designed at times to make it seem they stretched out into infinity, and at others to distort their images in queer ways.

“Is this…”

“Chang, yes,” Darion said. “All of it’s her.” He could not keep the awe from his voice. “Other people use their bodies to make art; she makes her body into art.”

And art it was. More than just a simple conglomeration of parts, a mere exercise in position and composition, there were sources of light there within the Mirror Queen’s body, fixtures and torches that sent refractive ripples through entire mirrored swaths.

The maze extended vertically, too, but accessing the higher levels required negotiating the lowers in certain ways, passing through nigh-invisible doors, coming face to face with one’s own twisted image.

“Chang?” Sakura called out.

“She won’t answer,” Darion said, looking at one of a thousand-thousand reflections of Sakura and quite unsure where she was now. “She only talks to someone who gets to the centre and finds her. She can hear everything, but won’t interact. She’s like that a lot these days.”

It took an hour to navigate the mirror maze, even with Sakura and Darion working in unison. Chang’s body wove into more and more complex mirrored landscapes as they neared the centre, no longer obeying the mundane laws that governed the shape of glass. At one point they passed through an entire separate chamber within Chang’s maze-body, an open area where short mirrored blades of glass crunched underfoot and a reflective liquid pool beckoned them to swim with half-formed arms.

Chang awaited in the centre of the maze, in a simple squared chamber formed of six mirrored surfaces. She sat in a mirrored chair, but she did not wear her ‘regal’ garb. The queen within the maze was the Chang of days past, punkish, hooded, with her hair shaped short beneath the wool, her white rain eyedrop prominent, and other tattoos snaking across her skin. A sign of the woman she had become was evident, though, for her fingers were laced and steepled in a meditative posture.

She looked up as they entered. “Hello, Sakura. It feels like it has been a long time.”

With a soft glassy slither, a couch and chair formed for Sakura and Darion respectively.

Darion settled upon the chair, wondering how he should even address Chang. He could not be easy and relaxed the way Sakura was when she flopped down gratefully on the couch. He looked at Chang and saw a being an order of magnitude different to himself. She was at a point where even the most basic thought was a mystery to him.

He leaned back to let the two friends catch up.

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It was good to be out, she knew, even if it made her nervous and jump at every unexpected sound. She didn't know how she would have made it through the first few days with Darion's constant, quiet, and supportive presence. He'd talked her down from racing back to her parents farm, pointing out the same arguments she'd used the first time she fled for safety that they couldn't help her, being, at best, middle class baselines, and that she'd be putting them in danger if she was followed or tracked back to them. Until she had a safe place - a truly safe place - it was best that the world continue to wonder where Sakura came from and who her family was. It didn't make her happy; she wanted to curl up in her parent's arms and never leave again, but she couldn't bear the thought of them being harmed or killed or kidnapped because of her, either.

Darion promised to get them word that she was safe now and with friends, and that she would see them as soon as it was safe. Now she just had to figure out the 'safe' part again. Her life kept running in circles and the squirming kicks in her womb were a constant reminder that she was running out of time. Darion's suggestion to visit the new home for the Anavasi and see Chang was perfect timing, though she suspected he knew that before he made the offer to take her.

Sclader's entrance to the Court of Mirrors was a dizzying puzzle that reminded her of a movie her mother had loved as a child and watched with Sakura when she couldn't sleep for the first few months on this Earth. It was appropriately titled 'The Labyrinth' and had a room in the heart of the castle that was just as disorienting, though this version didn't come with a singing man in heavy eye make-up, huge hair, and tights. She quirked a smile as she glanced over at Darion and mentally dressed him as the Goblin King. Maybe she could even get him to sing? She solved the riddle of the room before she worked up the nerve to ask him, and some of her amusement faded into frustration at how timid she found herself now. People kept telling her that it would get better, but it didn't feel like that now.

Sakura trailed her fingers along the surface of the mirror walls after they made their way to the center of the Mirror Court and Darion explained that they were stepping within her eccentric and sorely missed friend, knowing now that Change would feel it as much as her steps on the yielding-but-reflective floor. So, this is what it is to be a Terat, I suppose? Chang, do I even know you anymore? Did I ever, or did I just never see this? She shivered and wondered, too overwhelmed to have any idea if she was in awe or fear of the Mirror Queen. Probably at least a little of both.

Her flop onto the couch Change created was as much familiarity as sore feet; the Court was beautiful, but into the second week of August meant she was also several weeks into her third trimester and finally starting to truly feel tired if she walked too far or too long. Her silk slithered around her and made a warm, soft blanket over her, one set in shades of pale green and silver and patterned like frosted ivy. It made a splash of color in the reflective room, but one that somehow seemed to fit. A selfish bit of her wished Chang hadn't made the separate chair, though the comfort of body heat would probably have her napping before they got past the hellos.

She nodded to Chang, her expression thoughtful. "It does. It's been weeks, but it's more than that. Strange, how it's little moments that make time seem to stretch, and not all the bits you forget in between." She glanced away from the hooded figure and to the mirrors that made the room. "You seem....more, now. Different." Alien? "And Darion said that Lucrezia is away for a while?" Her brows knit in concern on that; Darion had been vague, but didn't seem worried about Chang's wife. He also wouldn't or couldn't tell her when she'd be back though, and a part of Sakura needed to see and touch her friends, to know that they were safe and remind herself that she was safe again as well.

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Chang appreciated this particular interruption. Several of the Anavasi came to see her earlier, left confused and annoyed. She did not cheat. Her maze followed ironclad, if complicated, rules. Unfortunately there were not that many Novas in the world intelligent enough to solve a puzzle designed by a mind like hers. Sakura happened to be one of them.

They came with ideas for collaborative works, or advice on musical components in their compositions. Her mind was on other matters, though, and she did not want to talk about art for once.

The Alchemist’s presence would have been appreciated, but Cyndi was in an upswing, furiously at work on some new photography. She filled entire rolls of film, developed the film, went out and fetched more, and so on. So far she had been at work for six days straight, without the slightest pause.

She watched Sakura from within her hood, listening to the stir of children in her belly more than anything else. They were active now. She barely heard Sakura’s words, because she had heard them already.

“My wife has entered her second chrysalis,” Chang said, unsmiling. “As good as that news is, I find I miss her terribly. I haven’t been alone in a long time, and somehow I managed to not notice just how omnipresent Lucrezia became. It’s one of many issues that have been on my mind of late.”

Sakura smiled. “What else have you been thinking about?”

“The nature of predestination and the metaphysical concept of time,” she said, her four-voices now twisting into an ironic, musical tone. “I have some new… quirks.”

“Like what?” Sakura propped herself up on one elbow, beautiful and elegant as always.

“I can hear the future. And the past. Not see it, hear it.” Chang smiled. “I heard every word we’ve spoken so far over a day ago. In fact, I heard every word spoken in this area a day ago. I could tell by the echoes that those words occurred within my mirror maze. And here we are. This has been happening a lot of late. Yesterday I came here to do some sketching. Maze designs, of course. Something like this needs pre-planning. My body is not something I am lazy with. The more of me there can be, the more room I have to create works of true complexity. I heard all of this while sketching.”

“Wow,” Sakura said. “I noticed you were hearing things at the Terat meeting, but I didn’t know.”

“Nobody did, me included. The ability developed in full shortly after that meeting. I did not quite understand what was happening until we moved here. I heard my wife enter chrysalis before she did. I managed to be surprised twice by the same event. Not many people get that chance,” she laughed.

“So you came here because you knew you were supposed to?”

Chang shrugged. “That’s what I’m thinking about. I resist – like any Terat – the idea of a future I cannot control. Yet I constantly find myself speaking the words I heard before, taking what actions are needed to bring about the conversations that I know are coming. It is not simple. I hear permutations, possibilities that may be, and need to fathom out from the level of the sound what will be. It takes time and is not an exact process. But it has been weeks I did not live out one of those permutations I heard in advance. The biggest surprise was acting out one I thought unlikely.”

“What happened?” Sakura’s face came alive with interest. Chang doubted she expected news like this.

“Cyndi came to me with a marriage proposal. I… accepted,” she shook her head. “That I did not expect. But in the moment, seeing her face, feeling the intensity of her emotion, the sincerity of her desire… I did. Though we deferred until my wife emerges from chrysalis. It would not be fair to marry without her input,” Chang said. “Madness, is it not? I have made this one change, developed this one power, and my entire life has changed. I spend half of my time listening to tomorrow, and the other half going over the echoes of yesterday to glean what lessons I can. In honesty, I am frightened. I don’t know what it all means. So I think, and ponder, and miss my wife and the comfort her absence denies me.”

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Sakura listened quietly. She'd puzzled out the general idea of the Teragen chrysalis, though not enough to understand exactly how one went about it - mostly enough to know that it was dangerous and could last a long time and was part of the reason Terats came to be so different. Like being a mirror maze when they want to. Or hearing the future.... She pursed her lips and proffered, "You should plan to say something, every day. And sometimes don't, or say something different, but don't decide until when you had planned to say something." She smiled, "And congratulations. It's nice to know you are loved and to be able to reciprocate that. I hope Lucrezia will be happy, too."

That earned a brief, if still pensive, smile from Chang; it was no less than she expected from Sakura, and as she'd told the verdant nova, she'd heard her response yesterday. Her friend grinned wickedly, "And I'm going to start writing down Christmas presents, instead of telling people, if you can peek your ears into the future."

That got a snort from Darion.

"And I think that," Sakura continued, sparing an arch look at the silver-haired nova to show she'd meant what she said about the presents, "hmm....that just because you can hear echos that come true, that doesn't mean we're being controlled or have no choice in things. It's more like...like time or the universe or whatever, just knows us real well. Like a best friend. It's not hard to know what they'll say, most of the time. Think of it like that. A friend whispering in your ear about how things are likely to go, unless you or someone else does something drastically strange. And sometimes," she paused and then nodded with utter sincerity and complete silliness at the same time, "wear earplugs."

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Chang’s lips curved in a genuine, full-felt smile. It was one thing to know the future was coming, another to live it. The emotions were full in her heart, despite her wonders about what these powers meant.

Sakura’s kindness and warmth and – at times – irreverence reminded her of Lucrezia a little. Maybe that, most of all, was what she missed. Lucrezia could always bring her down just that little bit she needed to keep her mind grounded in the real. And if she could not do it with words, she did it with her bodies, dragging Chang’s lust into the forefront of her mind and drowning all higher thoughts.

Other women did inspire Chang’s lust, of course. Her desires were a rampaging monster within her, a creature that only showed itself in the size of her shaft most of the time. When her lusts were truly aroused that twisted her into a form far less human but much more fitting for satisfying its lusts. But only Lucrezia could make it so that Chang simply could not resist that beast.

It’s the lack of control I miss, she realized. I have spent my life developing rigid control. It’s so rigid that I’ve squeezed out my feelings, quashed them under reason and philosophy and fear. Yes, fear. Fear of failure on the path of Teras, fear of philosophical degradation, of surrender to the beauty and madness of taint. Those fears were so much more poignant without Lucrezia around, so much more piercing.

“I shall have to consider your earplugs suggestion,” she said. “Your suggestions are interesting. I’ll take them under advisement. I’ve considered actively attempting not to say what I overhear, but I hear so many options, so many variations. Without speaking gibberish it is hard to say something completely new. And even then I sometimes overhear myself snapping, going mad, giggling at some insane joke that frightens me even to contemplate.”

Sakura did not seem to know how to answer that.

“Enough of me,” Chang said. “I am not half as interesting as some people would have us all believe. What of you, Sakura? I know much about your return to us, but little of your capture. What exactly happened to you?”

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She shifted uncomfortably, a frown and lines of tension settling over her features. Even after time away from it all and back among friends, she still couldn't stop herself from jumping at sudden sounds or shying away if someone she didn't recognize came around. "A man, Eikenboom, he....he asked me a few years ago to help him build an army of children. I told him no."

She sighed, "And I left where I was and didn't think about him again until...." She swallowed and curled up a little tighter on the couch. "He decided 'no' wasn't an acceptable answer, so he kidnapped me."

Her tone was strained and took on bitter flavors, "Because novas needed his army, you see. For defense. Because infants make good soldiers and novas are incapable of winning the war he know was coming between baselines and novas. Apparently Nature granting novas quantum powers and a tendency to, y'know, come from baselines wasn't enough for our oh-so-fragile and defenseless subspecies to hold out against the great and powerful homo sapiens spaiens."

She glanced away from the other two in the room and whispered, "Asshole."

"In the end," she continued after a moment, "he was a nova with too much fear and just enough intelligence and resources to make a very stupid mistake." She deliberately spoke of him in the past tense. No one had told her exactly what happened or was still happening to him, but she'd felt the currents of anger and rage in her rescuers and had little doubt that he would ever be seen again. She had warned him and while the thought of hurting him herself still made her stomach twist up in knots, there was now a part of her heart that couldn't forgive him for what he'd tried to do and force her to do. And that part wasn't asking any questions the rest of her didn't want the answers to.

After another half of a heartbeat, she realized she hadn't really answered Chang's question. "He knocked us out at the club. I woke up in a sealed duplex-like apartment on the moon, with another nova that was supposed to make me think Eikenboom had magic control over the place or something." She had asked after Conrad and that had nearly ended in a screaming match with several of her rescuers, whom only relented because of how upset Sakura was becoming; eventually she'd called in favors from all three of the other parents of her children. Conrad and his family were safely ensconced in new lives, new bodies, and the understanding that if they ever resurfaced as their old selves, not even the protection of a member of the Teragen Pantheon would be able to keep them alive. They weren't exactly thrilled about being cut off from their extended family for the rest of their lives, but they were safe and living in far more luxury than even Conrad's death-bonus would have afforded them.

"Eikenboom threatened me and the children with permanent imprisonment if I didn't do what he demanded, and his plan was rather well thought-out. I managed to convince Conrad, the other nova there, to help me, and then I was rescued. Not a fun week, but mostly just boring on my end." She smiled at Darion when she mentioned the rescue; Coraline was the one that had delivered her back to Earth, but Sakura had heard from the Anavasi how it was him that had organized everyone, including a number of people Sakura barely knew, into a coherent search and rescue team. Without him - without everyone, but especially without him - she'd probably still be stuck up on the Moon.

She'd been confused and hurt when Ein hadn't been there or involved, and then horrified when she heard that he'd been disappeared himself and still hadn't resurfaced. Her thoughts flicked back to her conversation with Morrigan, who firmly but politely (for her) told Sakura to keep her nose out of. And what would she be able to do anyways? She sent out a few creatures programmed to respond to his smell, keyed in to his genetic and quantum signatures, and they were searching Earth, but that was as far as she could reach. She wouldn't have been able to rescue herself without another nova that could brave the Void unharmed, and if the Storm King was still alive - far less likely than it was with her, and even those had been slim odds - he was probably much farther away.

The melancholy of how cruel people could be to one another washed over her again as she fell silent. She tugged her silken blanket over her shoulders, chilled by too much reality.

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The fate of Mannes Eikenboom did not concern Chang, but she knew it would upset Sakura. She possessed a forgiving nature and would rather that everyone involved just walked away and never speak of such unpleasantness ever again.

We don’t do what people want, we do what needs to be done, Chang thought. Geryon once said something like that to her. She agreed with the sentiment. Under her guidance the Anavasi would set aside that naïve notion that the whole One Race could be a big happy family.

People with Sakura’s goodness of heart deserved to have those who would bloody their hands to protect them. If the One Race would have a future, it would be people like her who built it. Many of the Teragen were too steeped in gore, hate and death to ever put down the banners and give up the battle.

She read Sakura’s pain in the twitches of brow and tightening of eye, the way she huddled and the minor shakes that were deep in the small bones under the surface. Those Chang could hear.

“I told you, didn’t I? That ‘hiding in the open’ would not work.”

Sakura nodded.

“She doesn’t need to hear ‘I told you so’, Chang,” Darion said.

Chang’s eyes flicked to him, pierced him with a gaze more threatening than a rank of set and pointed spears. Her eyes changed colours. In the mirrors of her own body, her reflections now studied the thousand-thousand Darion reflections with eyes of gold and silver. He shrank into his seat a little. Without saying a word Chang looked back over to Sakura.

“It is a perennial problem for those of us with less than flawless physical defences. Does it not seem to you a symptom of a much larger problem, though? Bombshell should have known that the approach would not work for you as it did for her. She did not because Novas do not properly understand one another. It may be that we can never properly ‘know’ one another. But how do we bridge the gap, Sakura? How do we find ourselves to the middle point wherein we know one another well enough to do more than repeat what worked for us and hope that we haven’t missed something which makes a strategy non-viable?

“I worry about this issue. I wonder how successful we can ever be if we do not find some sort of answer to it, some solution. That is part of what I hope to do here with the Anavasi; I want us in the Teragen to focus on these social issues which are racing to the forefront, to find answers before it is too late.”

“What if the problem,” Darion said, “is elders not listening to the new generation?”

“Then, Darion, we need only wait for them to get tired and overthrow us. Coraline Boehm, fool that she is, already wields powers I can only dream of. Puck can teleport outside our galaxy in the blink of an eye. No, I think you and I both know that the problem is the reverse: stupid children with godlike power who wrongly believe that they can therefore do no wrong. Stupid elders who believe they can do no wrong is a problem of yesterday, I’m afraid, and one born of an altogether inferior plane.”

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Sakura rubbed a hand over her swollen womb, her eyes several shades darken green than usual as she considered Chang's words. "We don't," she replied to Chang's question to her. "We can't. All we, baseline and nova, have ever been able to do is tell one another what worked for ourselves and hope that it would translate to the one we were speaking to." She shook her head, "This isn't Jason's fault. I chose to follow her advice. She didn't make me or push me out into the spotlight against my will. It worked for her, but she has one child and can't make others fertile. Or at least hasn't told anyone if she can," she conceded that the beautiful nova actress might have secrets kept from even her friends.

"I took a risk, and it proved foolish. Now I choose to learn from it or ignore it, and everyone touched by this whole..." she waved in the air to indicate the entire sordid affair, "...mess, does the same. Some of us grow and change, others resist to remain the same. That is how it goes."

She shifted on the couch, her knots of tension shifting as her thoughts did. "As for 'bridging the gap', we talk and share experiences. We find the compromises we can all live with and abide by. We build our culture and our future one interaction at a time, one thought and one deed at a time. I know that sounds trite, but short of some species-wide mental domination, it is the only way that has the possibility of peaceful coexistence." And there was that other Sakura again, the one behind the pretty smiles and peculiar mixture of pristine demure innocent and carnal bedroom fantasy - the one that could be a nightmare goddess of vengeful Nature if ever unleashed from the bonds of Sakura's kindness and gentle heart. The Sakura that Mannes Eikenboom never knew existed or he would have known that to threaten or harm her children would have been a doom far worse than even Snow's untender mercies. And with a smile, she was gone. "So, we keep talking and trying and learning. Like we're doing now."

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Chang shook her head. “Friends are responsible for the advice they give. As are teachers. You were quite strident with me because of Bombshell’s advice, remember? You became quite incensed when I contradicted the pair of you. Time has proven me right, as I knew it would, but the central issue is not bragging rights, it’s Novas being ignorant of each other’s… qualities, shall we say?”

Sakura shrugged, indicating assent. The word worked for the purpose of their discussion at least.

“I may have misunderstood, but I was under the impression that you were rather close to Bombshell. Yet she seems to have made a categorical error concerning your resilience, or perhaps she underestimated the enemies of novakind. She is invincible, after all. Her kind do that. And isn’t that a problem in itself? ‘Her kind’ is applicable now. There are enough of us that we can form sub-categories based on broad power spectra. I’m beginning to think that’s the way forward, but it seems also the way backward.”

Darion, silent so far, shifted on his seat of mirrors. It did not feel unpleasant to have that shapely behind rubbing across her frictionless surface. “Sounds like basic sociological labelling to me. I presume you’re referring to the labels that get bounced around in the media?”

Chang turned his way with altogether less wrath than earlier. “I am, yes.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say something like that. It’s very… uh… human, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, which is what I find depressing about it. Yet… and yet… there is a degree of commonality developing amongst us along those lines. Look at me. I surround myself with shapeshifters and people of a flexible physicality. Part of that is sexual, yes, but it’s also because we share experiences on a far more significant level. Simple conversation is easier, because we understand one another better. I want my Anavasi to contribute to a Nova society, Darion. You know that. I’m observing these things on a microscopic level in the small artistic groups that are forming while they wait for Mad Lab funding applications to be made available.”

“Yeah. Not sure how the rest of the pantheon would like that idea, though. Aren’t we all meant to be one big Nova happy family?”

A queer smile alighted on Chang’s lips. “I think I thoroughly disabused them of that notion at our last meeting, no? There will be no such ‘happy family’. Utopians – fools that they are – believe in the message of their owners. Devries operatives believe what they believe. Some no doubt believe nothing. Others perhaps have a code of honour as did Einherjar. Others still have political ambitions. We in the Teragen hope to be one big happy family but we’ve yet to even sort that out. I believe that we need to become more microscopic in our approach and our philosophy, especially as our children gain galaxy-changing power. The macroscopic approach has failed. Yet how do we – and I – initiate such a radical paradigm shift before it’s too late?”

She looked back to Sakura. “Sorry if I sound grim. I think it’s expected, if not required. Once I was just a teacher, a philosopher looked up to by some. Now I’m a leader looked to by many, and I feel the pressure. And I miss my wife, who schemed so hard to put me here then waltzed off into chrysalis to leave me at it.” There was no genuine rancour in her voices when she said that. Rather she smiled wistfully.

“These are personal issues, of course, and political ones,” Chang said. “But not of interest to you. You are not a Terat after all. What is next for you, Sakura? You look about ready to pop.” She nodded at her swollen belly. “It’s strange to see someone pregnant. When I see a swollen belly it’s usually because I’ve eaten a lover. Do you intend to retire from the world once your children are born? To be a mother, I mean, the way that baselines often do. Or do you have an agenda of your own, now? The Crèche remains, and the plans are still in place to build more, if you desire it.”

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"I want to go forward with the Crèche," she said with conviction and perhaps a bit more force than she usually spoke with.

Her eyes were dark with emotion and Chang could feel her struggle to stay calm. "Hiding in the Congo didn't work and now Ein's missing. Being in the open didn't work either, and I do understand how lucky I am to be alive and free. I don't know if the Crèche will work either, but....it has to be tried. I won't give birth for a few more months, despite looking like a beached whale already." The last was said with a touch of humor; even with nova-enhanced physiology, it was starting to get uncomfortable and unwieldy to move around.

She peered at Chang, still trying to fathom the changes in her friend. "What about you? Do you still want to be involved? You sound...dissapointed...in me, annoyed maybe. And you have the Anavasi to look after now." She spread her hands, not quite looking Chang in the eyes, "We all have priorities and they change as circumstances do."

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“I am disappointed in the world, Sakura,” all of Chang’s voices were leaden with weariness. “Like any idealist with a vision of the future, I am saddened when I see people ruining it with selfishness and foolishness and wilful ignorance. It is so much easier to dream when you are not also shackled with the power and responsibility to make that dream come true. As an underling of Narcosis – however tentative – I was free to theorize. Now as a leader of the Anavasi, I must make things happen.” She shook her head. “I do not know if I have the strength. You did not disappoint me. I expected your naivety to lead you to ruin.” She shrugged. “It did. In the future you are likely to place more weight upon my council. By my analysis, there’s little for me to be upset about.”

Sakura nodded. “That’s a very cold way of looking at it.”

“I am very cold, Sakura. I have been for years. Lucrezia was the only one that cold reliably draw the fire from the ice. And now I find that I must be colder still, because now if I make a mistake the consequences will be terrible. But I am not annoyed with you. We are friends, even if your comparative heat and my chill leads us into conflict now and again.” She smiled with genuine warmth. As stressful as their past arguments had been, Chang valued Sakura’s friendship deeply. She stood as perhaps the only genuine friend she had outside the Teragen.

“So you still want to help with the crèche?”

“Of course.”

Sakura smiled. Chang could practically smell the relief. Chang looked over to Darion. “The arrangement you put in place with our silent silvery observer are still valid. I have made my feelings on the crèche public. You could call it a state of the union address. I’ll not abandon you. The plans we made for future crèches are still existant. I made some architectural sketches that you might find illuminating.”

“Really?”

Darion rolled his shoulders. His spine clicked. He scratched his head. Chang could see that he – like Sakura – did not quite know what to make of her at the minute. “Yes. Before you disappeared Chang had already scouted out a few possible locations in different bits of the world, places where you could set a crèche up either out in the middle of nowhere or somewhere with excessive invisibility in an inner city. You’d be surprised how much stuff people build and then forget about. Chang – being Chang – sketched a few hundred designs one day when she was bored.”

That was a slight overstatement, but Chang let it stand, only putting the lie to it with a smile that she felt sure Sakura would interpret correctly. The sketches emerged over a week or so, though it was possible that if you accumulated all the hours of design work you would end up with twenty four hours of concurrent work. The sketching itself was easy, the planning was difficult.

“What would you ask of me?” Chang enquired. “If you wish a place of safety, well, you are safe within my body. Less intimately, the Court of Mirrors is comparatively safe, and the Court of Shadows even safer. We are no Congo, and that is our advantage. The Exalt! Nation is controversial but popular, attacking it openly would be counterproductive to anyone who attempted it. Attacks by stealth are fundamentally flawed by the very nature of the Novas present here. We are, after all, Terats. We’re paranoid.

“If it is financial support you require, that I fear I cannot provide. I am obligated to put all of my financial gains into the Mad Lab slush fund. I’m sure you recall the discussion.” Sakura nodded. “Political support you have. If the Teragen’s good will is of value to you, remember that the crèche in Ibiza remains intact. It needs only to be used, and good will shall result.”

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She shook her head, "No, I think I've got the money covered. The insurance on Forbidden Fruits was quite extensive, and the payment from Dead Rising should be in my account now as well. I'd still like to set up the Body Shop, but I'll need help figuring out how to do that with the security that's obviously needed." There was a touch of bitterness to that, a sign that Sakura's faith in the world was at least a little tarnished after her brush with captivity.

"There should be enough money to finish off the few minor pieces of the original crèche and put something into place to earn income for the others. I'm not sure what, if the Body Shop isn't really a viable option now, though. I...I don't think I can rebuild Forbidden Fruits, at least nor for a while." It was a little heartbreaking, to hear the hesitation and fear in her voice now. She was trying to be strong, to move on from what happened and not tie up people's time with watching over her or having to deal with the emotional trauma - but it was still there and ignoring it wasn't making it go away. "So I guess I have a mostly-intact club...and nothing really to do with it. Do either of you have ideas? I don't think there would be as much interest now if I made some sort of private establishment, not after what's happened, but....I'm just not sure."

She leaned back and shook her head, "I don't think I could do what you do, Chang. Leading, being responsible for so much and so many." Her fingers played over her womb, "Just the thought of being responsible for my children in a few months is enough to make me nervous, and for the first year they won't even be able to move around much or talk back." She grinned at the Mirror Queen and Darion, her tone teasing, "From what I've seen of most artists, if they're not in the middle of making something, that's pretty much all they do. Squirm around and poke at you and make you think, asking questions - and not the easy ones like 'can I have ice cream for dinner?' or 'is pizza a food group?'"

She chuckled at herself, blushing. "All I could think of was questions about food...."

Her head tilted to the side as a thought struck her, "I suppose I could sell my city-trees. As an....architectural? firm, I guess. Glow-bugs and some other biological alternatives to standard technology that I was playing with while I was living in the Congo." The thought of the Congo and the disappearance of her friend - or whatever she and Ein had been - made her frown again, her mood as mercurial as the winds at the moment.

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“It’s me asking them the questions most of the time,” Chang said. “And if I don’t want to talk, I turn my body into this and let my changed flesh sift the worthy from those who will waste my time.”

Sakura giggled. “You sound really harsh.”

“I can be when I’m in a meditative or brooding mood. More so than normal, I mean. It gets very lonely some nights, when my flesh aches for my wife and all I can do is watch her sleeping in the chrysalis.” A long sigh escaped her lips. “As you can see, my mind goes round in circles when I’m in a mood like this. As I said, the mirror maze sifts and sorts those who would pester me. Only a handful of the Anavasi are insightful or intelligent enough to find the way through the maze quickly, and in general, those who have the determination to stick with it through trial and error do have something worth saying. It hasn’t failed yet.”

“And there was me thinking you just wanted to be weird,” Darion opined.

Chang’s cock twitched, flexed underneath her clothes, thickened and swelled. She quirked an eyebrow at Darion. “Do you think I need to try for that?”

He gestured. “Well, normally it doesn’t do that so…”

Her shaft settled. Chang laughed. “Point to you, Darion Mográine. If you are feeling intelligent, why not help Sakura with her problem? How do we make the Body Shop a reality?”

Darion considered for a few moments. “The body shop wouldn’t be the first of its kind. Sin-Eater’s clinic is based on a similar principle after all. Difference is she can eat whatever comes her way. For a more peaceful alternative DeVries has a lot of anti-Nova security tech that you could buy with a big enough pocket-book and the right black market contacts. Not that I’d know about such people, being an upstanding citizen and all,” he gave a winning smile and a wink. Chang always had found him roguish. Like a more handsome Han Solo, though with the wisdom of age to take off the smugness. “It might make it easier to avoid what happened at Fruits. The best approach would be to have a front shop run by baselines who refer patients to you at a different, more secure location to be set up with the individual in question. You wouldn’t have to be out in front and vulnerable during all the opening hours. Besides, it’s a designer service so you’re not likely to get customers in floods. Might be able to run the entire thing over the OpNet.”

Chang gave an approving nod. Darion always had been good at that sort of organizational problem. “Wise council. The essential issue you face, Sakura, is that you’re simply not resistant enough against the forms of attack your enemies can employ. It therefore behooves you to fall back on the better part of valour.”

She could tell Sakura did not like that. The beautiful and usually serene Nova bent her head back, causing her long hair to brush over the mirror-flesh of Chang’s couch-body. Part of her shuddered at the touch, but none of those parts were in this area. “I suppose,” she said.

“Selling your city-trees is a very interesting prospect. I’d suggest market research before setting out on that endeavour. The western world is unlikely to be a rich market, too urban. Perhaps certain parts of Asia, China in particular might be viable. Russia as well, and of course the African continent. Utopia has done such a good job of stabilizing and improving people’s lives that such things become less a necessity and more a luxury, and people have spread cities – of the conventional variety – out so far that finding a place to plant one could be awkward.”

Darion seemed to agree. “Saying that, the smaller stuff you’ve been working on, depending on what it is, could go down very well. Jewellery would be my suggestion. Everyone likes pretty things, and you can get that onto some high-profile models. You’re – ahem – bosom buddies with Boobshell, aren’t you?”

Chang smiled. Sakura giggled and made a mock punching gesture in Darion’s direction, though it seemed more like a kitten pawing at the air.

“She’d be a good option for a model. Once you’ve got some profile, you can start expanding. If you have full tech replacements for something commonplace, you can offer your version as a more stylish alternative. It’s all about positioning. If you make your quantum-derived products the thing to have, the prices will rocket up regardless of what you’re selling. Or, if you can mass-produce, you can make a thing everyone needs that’s better than what they’ve got, and be a success that way.”

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October 31, 2027

Setting up the Body Shop had gone fairly smoothly, all things considered. The world was still reeling from Puck's theatrics and departure, though in some ways it had been a blessing - everyone had to adjust, and so the economy and political structures of the world got something of a fresh start to be able to account for everything the Nova Age had changed. Nearly all manufacturing was now automated, freeing up the 60% of the population that was left for other, generally non-menial work. Work weeks were shorter, there was no shortage of space, from homes to storefronts, to just space anymore. The world population was back down to N-Day levels, with the majority of people at working adult or older ages, and with the space stations and colonization going on, that meant far fewer people actually on Earth.

Sakura had found herself in high demand for far more 'practical' applications as all population restrictions had been lifted - and even reversed as many countries as families raced to replace the enormous lack of children across the world now, threatening the promise of future colonists if nothing else. She'd also offered a sliding scale on youth treatments so that within a few years 'old' would be mostly a matter of choice or gross ignorance of the alternatives available.

Not that she'd made her location known. What was left of the Teragen had fallen mostly into three camps: those Puck hadn't made his offer to, which usually fell into Leviathan's Harvesters and the most fanatical of the Cult of Mal, and the Teragen that had chosen to stay, who now mostly rallied around the Mirror Queen. Sakura still refused to take an official political or philosophic stance, but she stuck close to Chang and her inner circle, and it was through their security gauntlet - primarily Darion - that anyone wanting Sakura's services would have to jump through before they got anywhere near the green-hued nova. With Bounty gone, there would be no unnecessary risks to Sakura or her children. Teleporters, telepaths, and a host of other novas and black-tech were used to ensure the motives and utter ignorance of customers - they were taken for locations all over the world, 'ported about enough that no one could even say for certain if Sakura was still on Earth, received whatever treatment they had paid for, and were returned in the same manner. Speculation had run wild, especially as customers reported on her ripening pregnancy and what the children would be like once they were born.

The nova herself was currently ensconced in a pool of warm water in her suite in the Court of Mirrors, trying not to look too nervous. Her children were full term as of today, Halloween for the Western world, and her body was already changing to begin the birthing process. She could have adjusted herself, put it off for another day - or week - but she'd be just as nervous then. It was time to truly become a mother.

Andre and Caroline had both gone with Puck, looking to make a better world or universe or whatever Puck had really been offering; Anteus had stayed, but he was still wandering around Africa somewhere. It wasn't that she wanted them there, necessarily; they'd been chosen for their genetic and quantum benefits more than for emotional connections, but some small part of her was sad that none of them would likely meet their children. Anteus might, but he wouldn't particularly care. Her own parents had also gone, after she'd assured them that they should follow their hearts on the matter and not worry about her. That had hurt, but then she'd left them years ago. It hardly seemed fair to tie them down when Puck would need all the parents he could muster for the children he was taking with him.

The Teragen were a different matter. Several parties were already going on in the Court of Mirrors, the Court of Shadows, and the Exalt Islands - which had been taken over by a mismash of Terats and friendly unaffiliated novas that had rather liked the idea of a nova-controlled area that wasn't the Congo.

Another deep breath and spoke softly, trusting her friends to hear her through walls and across continents if necessary. “It’s time.”

Notes
I'm leaving this open to have whomever you'd like from the Chang crew to be present. I don't think anyone else that Sakura was close with is really posting with their PC anymore. We can also skim over the actual births as much as you'd like. If you want to PM me (Chat or board) for descriptions of the children, feel free. We can do another time-jump after this, but I wanted to pause here to remark on some changes to the setting because of Puck and to give at least a little 'camera' time to the birth, since it was such a focus for her run in the game.

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***

“Change. It is the one thing that everyone does, mean or great, kind or cruel. Evolution, mutation, ongoing processes in which we engage every day, whether we are aware of it or not.” Chang stopped speaking. “This is the beginning of a terrible speech.”

She sent a small quiver of quantum through her body and stretched her arm across the room, lengthened and reshaped her fingers into flexible tentacles, and caressed her wife’s cool, shining black chrysalis. It felt like her insides, hard latex instead of liquid, ice-smooth. It had been getting smoother of late. Perhaps reflecting some change within.

Wouldn’t that be appropriate?

The world was changed, thanks to Puck and his typical headstrong approach to things. Hard to believe he’s my student. Chang couldn’t stop herself from smirking. He did her proud.

Puck had given her the choice to come with him, of course, but she declined where so many she respected did not. Finding a new world, a new dimension to hear him tell it, was a topic so full of fascinating options that it made her sigh to remember the choice. But, as with every decision she made, it took little thinking. Chang’s actions were guided by iron philosophy, as resistant to her emotional whims as water is to bruising. To leave this world – their world – would be akin to surrender. And most importantly, she would never know how it ended up.

But it was impossible not to think, to wonder what Puck and his many adherents and companions would discover in the new earth. Would there be alien lifeforms, perhaps? Dinosaurs still roaming the earth?

Perhaps all that and more. Or perhaps life would be the same irritating drudgery that earth had crafted for its sentients, disdaining their intelligence with its cold indifference.

Maybe one day he would visit, though she doubted it. Puck had given the impression it was a one-way trip.

Chang sighed. “I miss you, my love. When you finally hatch, I suspect the first words out of your lips will be ‘I’m so tired of hearing that.’ It is a new world that awaits your beauty. I hope I will have made it a better one by the time you open your eyes to greet it.”

New in many ways, similar in others. Most of the Anavasi – the core Anavasi – those Lucrezia would care about, had stayed. Some did it for their own reasons, like Meh’lindi, others did it out of loyalty, like Shiv. But they stayed.

This was one of the only quiet places left for Chang. Now that her ears were turned to the future and past alike, everywhere she went she heard the beat of things to come or the echoes of those since past. Few came here, though. It was accepted truth that this was a place for wife and wife to be together, undisturbed.

Not that she couldn’t hear dolphins chittering under the water far away, or smell the flesh of a beast Meh’lindi was cracking in her giant teeth. ‘Quiet’ had a rather different meaning to the Mirror Queen.

“It’s time.

She turned her head towards the sound.

Change, Chang thought. It is time for Change.

She rose, reshaping her podium into legs, and retracted her arm. She snapped her neck out like a rubber band and kissed her wife’s shell, then turned and headed up and out.

***

“Everyone here?” Darion said, as the whip-thin tendril of Chang’s body splashed down and quickly reformed into the strange, strange form of the Mirror Queen.

“Prudence can’t make it,” Snow said, pouting. “She’s tied up in Australia.”

“Doing what?”

“Work. You know, work work.”

Darion nodded. He’d have to get ‘Starling’ onto that later. He hadn’t heard of any Teragen activity in Australia. What with half of the movement declaring ‘fuck it, I’m done’ and jumping ship to wherever Puck had gone, there wasn’t much of the organisation left but bloody bones and a few still-vital organs. Ironically, the big three that formed his information network remained intact. Sort of. Synapse was still doing his thing – no OpNet no interest for him – but the third in the triumvirate had been replaced. They still used the same handle, but Darion could tell it was someone new. A woman, too. That made him a little uneasy.

He pushed it out of his mind and gave a graceful bow that caused his shining silver hair to brush the ground.

“You need not bow to me, Darion,” Chang said in her melodious four-tone voice.

“Au contraire, mon frère, you are pretty much the de facto head honcho of the Teragen these days. Far as we can tell almost all the others left. Geryon’s still around, but Nova Vigilance is gutted and he was never a politician anyway. You’re the don.”

Chang gave him a withering glare. One of her eyes was blood red, the other black as jet. It gave her gaze a little more weight than usual, and it always had plenty. “I am not your brother.”

“Size o’ that begs to differ,” Darion said, nodding at the bulge of her cock, clearly visible up the front of her chong-sam.

Chang passed by him into the room, and Darion closed the door.

Sakura lay nervous within, waiting.

“You’ve got all the audience you’re going to, my emerald enchantress.” That inspired a round of groans from all present. “We’re all waiting on the kids now.”

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She knew it wasn't 'normal', but Sakura was thankful for the small crowd of people in the room; her heart was fluttering in anticipation and a small dose of fear and knowing that there were others on hand to help out was all that was keeping her calm and focused. A minute of deep breaths passed by as she made the final adjustments to her body and then it began.

It was birth - bloody, still a little painful even for a fertility nova, and while a miracle, still a bit disturbing. Sakura was clinging on one side to an arm that Chang wrapped around her and on the other to Darion's hand as she pushed, her hair wet with sweat and her eyes almost all pupils. The first child born was green infant with leaf-like skin and impossibly delicate vines for hair; she stayed in the water for a moment as she absorbed the organic material that had come from the womb with her. Then the tendrils of her hair sought out the edge of the pool near her mother, crawled up Chang's side, and eventually pulled the rest of her along. Once she'd made a vine-hair-hammock with a flower petal lining growing in for herself on Chang's side, she promptly curled back up and went to sleep.

Sakura glanced up at Chang with a bemused grimace, but there wasn't time to speak before the next push and the birth of her second daughter. This one plump and pink, far more human-looking than her elder sister, though her eyes were already open and the same intense green as her mother's and her hair curled in red-to-pink wisps, belying her inhuman parentage. She kicked in the water, splashing her annoyance at being expelled from the womb and surfacing to add a healthy, if angry, scream to her tantrum. At a nod from Sakura, she was scooped out of the pool by Cyndi to be cleaned up and wrapped in a warm blanket. The Wiccan Anavasi let out several surprised grunts as the infant flailed against her with enough strength to break bones - or concrete.

Her last child decided to make a leisurely exit from the womb; once she was finally out, she settled languidly in the curve of her mother's hip. Her skin was duskier than Sakura's, a light cocoa pattern reminiscent of pale wood; her lips and hair were the same shades of green as Sakura's. Her features a perfect mix between both her mothers and making her heritage immediately recognizable by everyone in the room that had ever met Caroline Fong. She blinked in the air when Sakura pulled her up from the water, showing full green sclera to match her green lips, gaving her a positively fae appearance. She she smiled and cooed at her mother, snuggling in arms as Sakura held her to her chest. She settled down at the sound of Sakura's heartbeat, her tiny hands instinctively kneading at Sakura's breast.

After several moments of rest, Sakura stood up and stepped out of the pool. She wrapped herself in her silk, letting it sluice the water off over and not bothering to shape it like clothing at the moment. She ran her free hand across the face of eldest daughter and named her, "Zara."

Stepping over to Cyndi, she bopped the squirming middle child lightly on the nose, "An-" The girl reached up and grabbed her mother's finger in a crushing grip, making Sakura wince and wiggle to free herself. "You are definitely Andre's daughter," she teased gently.

To the youngest in her arms, she smiled and said, "And you are Jun." She leaned down and kissed her forehead, eliciting another contented cooing sound. "Welcome to the world, my lovely daughters."

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Second verse, same as the first, Darion thought as he watched Sakura go into labour, as he felt her delicate, silk-soft hand clench on his.

His mind went back to his wife, to a hospital room a lifetime away, and him clutching her hand as she gave birth to their child. They hadn’t known whether it was a girl or boy. His wife had a somewhat superstitious nature, and felt that knowing the gender would curse the child. The Japanese could be crazy like that. At times they were the most rational people in the world, at other times… not.

The other Novas observed in their own ways. Some were unreadable, some enthused. The birth of a Nova baby would take a long time to become old news. Well, maybe Puck’s armada of spawn would take some of the specialness out of it. But on earth – this earth – there wasn’t a Terat alive whose heart didn’t stir at the sight.

Darion gave Sakura’s hand a second reassuring squeeze when the first baby came crawling out. Not weak, defenceless, like most other children. Its powers were apparent and active already, as hair-tendrils explored and gripped and pulled it from the pool.

He couldn’t help but frown a little when the baby curled up beside Chang. The Mirror Queen looked down at it, expression unreadable. Surely she was flattered, though.

The next baby came out fighting. Darion grinned. It felt reassuring to see a Nova baby bawling like, well, a baby, rather than sitting there staring at everything around it with knowing eyes. He hated it when they came out super intelligent. He’d rather they came out with wings and claws than that.

The Alchemist stretched her arms down and picked the kid up. She wouldn’t have been his choice of midwife. The kid gave her a kick that sent her body bending.

“Oh, you little shit,” she said, then covered her mouth with one hand. “Sorry, Sakura.”

Snow cooed over the little monster, Prudence extended a couple of tentacles to play with it.

Sakura already had her eyes closed, concentrating on the final birth. It came out without drama, without much noise. Darion watched it curl up at Sakura’s hip like a cat curling up to sleep in its master’s lap. “Well isn’t she cute?” He said.

There was an air of solemnity as Sakura named the daughters. Nobody made a sound.

Afterwards, though, it was a quiet party, with Sakura getting hugs from everyone. Darion licked his lips. A man at childbirth was in foreign territory, behind enemy lines; a hunted, unwanted beast. He kept his head down, at least as far as a man with glinting silver hair actually could.

Sakura came to him eventually, though. He embraced her, felt the warm press of her bosom against his chest. Her musk filled his nose, bringing out old memories and newer lusts. He gave those a firm kick in the nuts though. Lusting after a woman who’d just given birth – Nova or otherwise – was inappropriate.

“Congratulations, Sakura. You’re a mom now. Welcome to the end of your life.”

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