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Aberrant: 200X - From Fathers to Children

Reese K. Kincaid

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"You have to remember something: Everybody pities the weak; jealousy you have to earn."

Those words came back to him now, like the whisper of a ghost. They were the words of a man who called Reese his enemy, Kenneth Stark. The words had been passed down by his father, and become almost a family motto. He would be near fifty now, like Reese. Unlike Reese, he would be showing it.

Reese was sat in the main garden at the back of the mansion, on a woven wicker chair behind a smooth white table. Today he wore his accustomed white uwagi and plain red hakama with toe socks and wooden sandals. He played the flute for a girl no older than Kiku, a thin and nervous thing. She sat opposite him, looking nervous and uncertain, listening to the music and unaware of the words in his mind.

The tune was soft, lilting and breezy, the kind that bamboo seemed to lend itself towards. Since his eruption his skill with the flute had amplified a dozen times, the music had come more smoothly, and his fingers never missed the holes anymore. He never seemed short of breath, or to blow too hard or too soft. His control was absolute.

After a minute and a half of playing, he played a long, undulating note that trailed off into silence.

"Everybody pities the weak; jealousy you have to earn."

Reese lowered the flute from his lips, and with a movement so deft and fast it defied belief, set it to spinning on the back of his hand. The girl gasped at that. His daughters had always loved that little trick.

He nudged it off the back off his hand and caught it, then placed the flute on the table before him.

"Did you like that?" Reese asked.

She nodded. "Yes, sensei." Her back was to a small rock pool that had been formed by forging a split from the stream which ran through the mansion grounds. Reese liked it.

"Kaoru," he said, pondering how best to approach her problem, as he had been trying to during his flute break before the mental ghost of Kenneth Stark rose up to haunt him, "why do you feel you should leave the dojo?"

She seemed to him like a girl seeking hope, not one who had given up. Why come to him at his mansion when she had to know she would be refused entry? Why not just stop turning up? He did not know her the way he knew most of his better students, but her face was familiar.

Now she bit her lip, and seemed like she did not want to answer. "Because I'm weak."

Her voice was thin and frail when she said that, full of shame. Yes. He had thought that would be her reason. That was why Ken had come to mind. Ken Stark, so obsessed with 'strength'. He tried to keep down the old fury.

"Weak," Reese said, as if tasting the word. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kiku pause as she walked from the mansion to one of the outer buildings. By her posture he guessed the stables. She liked to ride, especially when something bothered her. "I presume you mean physically?"

Kaoru nodded. She did look thin and fragile, especially dressed in a loose top and over-long trousers.

"I wonder. Why did you join the dojo in the first place?" Reese asked.

She blinked at him as if uncertain it had been him that spoke. "S-Sensei?"

He smiled. "Why did you join? Was it to become strong?"

"I... get bullied. A lot." The guilt in her tone made it seem like she were admitting to a crime. "I wanted to be strong enough to make it stop."

Reese sucked in his breath, and let it out in a long sigh. "I see," he said. "I gather your training hasn't helped much on that front, then." She said nothing, and he took that as affirmation. "As reasons go to learn martial arts, that one is both the most common and least worthwhile. I don't mean that as a criticism," he added quickly, for she flinched at his words. "You have to understand, Kaoru, that there are few problems in life that actually go away when you hit them. Bullies do sometimes, I admit."

"Like in the manga," she said, a slight smile twitching her lip.

He laughed out loud. "Yes, just like in the manga. Boy's manga mostly, I gather." He found a picture forming in his mind. Kaoru was a tomboy. She had a lot of a boy's traits to her. Her dress was slovenly in much the same way a teenage boy's might be, she was showing few signs of developing womanhood though of an age where she ought to be. Girls could be very cruel when they spotted someone 'not like them'. "Do you read boy's manga? Girl's manga not appealing?"

She screwed up her nose and shook her head. "It's stupid."

"It must have hurt," he said, "trying to live up to your heroes and failing. That's what this is, isn't it? Your body's not turning into corded muscle and whip-fast reflexes the way it does in the stories."

She looked like she might cry, but just nodded. He kept his tone as soft and kind as he could. He had become something out of a boy's manga. He had even had it suggested to have one made based on his likeness. He could, to quote his favourite co-star, 'kick a tank to death'. Reese had always been wary of the star element that being in the movies brought to play, of the idea that people might come because of him rather than because of his teachings.

The eruption was many things, he thought, but there was one thing it absolutely was not: Fair.

"Kaoru," he said, leaning forward now. "There is a world of difference between the manga and the lives it is based on. Few people reach for the martial arts in a fight. Some do, but most do not. It takes years and years for these things to be instinctive, and even then I've seen third and fourth dan black belts resort to pulling someone's shirt over their heads and punching them in the face. At the very least, I've seen very few flying kicks outside the movie set. Grappling, choke holds, that sort of thing, tends to play a bigger part in a real fight. Though I did once see an amazing flying axe kick performed by an overexuberant yakuza." He nodded, remembering. That had been impressive. The young man had thrown someone out of a shop through a window, and when the unfortunate stood back up he had jumped through the broken window yelling like a banshee, and kicked the poor fellow right in the head. He not only did not get up from that but later died in hospital. It had disturbed Reese deeply when the case went to trial, as it had been a near-perfect recreation of one of the key scenes from his own breakout movie role.

Kaoru seemed even more deflated, if that was possible. "Then what's the point of learning in the first place? Why did you learn?"

He snorted. "No good reason."

Everybody pities the weak.

Reese rested back in his chair again. "That's why I don't judge people poorly if they likewise have no good reason. I did it mostly to impress my father, at first. But Kaoru," he said, lowering his tone, making eye contact, trying to reach into her and pull her out of the shell he could see her curling into, "the value of the martial arts is not that they teach you how to hurt people. It's mental discipline, direction, focus, things that help you in all aspects of your life. Learning the martial arts makes your body and mind strong and healthy. Do they help you punch bullies in the face?" He shrugged. "Yes, they can certainly do that. But they're far more likely to raise you above them, to the point where you simply don't care about them. And that's far more effective. This you can benefit from."

She seemed sad, but cautiously optimistic. Kaoru could not meet his gaze. She wrung her hands, but also straightened her spine. "But I'm weak..."

"Do you go to a gymnasium?"

Kaoru shook her head.

"If I told you that I could make you strong, how far would you go to achieve it? Would you do as I said?"

She considered for a few moments, then gave a rapid nod. "Yes. If you didn't mind helping me be strong..."

Kaoru sounded like she felt trapped, as if she had said something she ought not to have. Reese smiled. "Don't worry. Like I said, I got into the martial arts for the wrong reasons. The martial arts is a battle not between you and the opponent, but between you and yourself. Your training will bring out every character flaw, every weakness, every little thing about yourself that you hate. It's not your bullies you're fighting in my dojo. It's you," he said, pointing his finger squarely at her chest. "If you're willing to beat yourself into shape, I can help you do it."

"Alright," she said. "What do you want me to do?"

"Come to the dojo next week, as usual. Stay after hours, and we'll talk. I'll have a training regimen for you to follow out of hours, I'll arrange a membership for you at a gym I know. And if I see you improve, which I should, perhaps I'll give you some private instruction. I know, I know, that's how the master starts out in the manga. He offers his respectful - or disrespectful as the story may prefer - student private tuition, and things go from there. I don't think it would benefit you quite yet. You need to build confidence in your body first."

Reese heard Takako coming out to the garden. She had a distinctive step, picked up from years of hard martial arts training of her own. Up until she had Hanako, she had been a movie star herself. If not for Kiku pushing him to go into the movies, he likely would have never met her.

He leaned back and arched his neck, smiling as she came out to see him. He reached back and took her hand, rubbed his thumb along the back of it. "Good afternoon, Takako." Then he frowned. Her expression was cool, calm, but reserved. "Is something wrong?"

"You have a visitor, Reese. An 'old friend'."

"Ah," he said. He knew who that was. "Kaoru, I apologize, but I must attend to this."

"No, it's fine. You were very kind to talk to me. I'll be there. At the dojo, I mean. I won't quit yet. Not quite." She stood up a little too fast, almost knocked over her chair, and bowed to him.

Reese rose, altogether more smoothly, and bowed as well. "Takako, would you see my young guest out? I'll go see Michael myself."

She gave him a stiff nod and then smiled at Kaoru.

Reese headed into the house. Just as he entered, he heard a whinny from the stables. He wondered how long Kiku had watched him talking with Kaoru. She did that, sometimes, just found somewhere to watch things. After her mother died she had been a constant eavesdropper, and impossible to discipline on the subject. Eventually he had stopped trying.

And now his old school friend had come calling again. Michael Armstrong. Utopian. Recruiter.

It had been six months since his last visit. Reese wondered what had changed?

On the threshold though, he paused and looked back. He loved the garden. So ordered, with the rock pool there, the organized tumble of stones that tried but failed to shape the waterfall which fed it, the precisely laid out beds of flowers surrounding the central table, and the way the stone rose up to form natural walls, as the garden was on a low dip in the land. Yet the peace had been shattered today. He never had bad thoughts here. So where did it come from? Was it just seeing Kaoru that had brought Kenneth to mind?

"Jealousy you have to earn," he whispered, remembering the loathing in Ken's voice when he said that. The hate.

Reese looked down, and saw his own fist, clenched and shaking. He raised his arm and thrust it down, symbolically to shake off the distemper that had taken hold of him. That motion alone caused the dust to rise up as if struck, for the eruption had made him mighty beyond the wildest dreams of most men. He shook his hand out as he headed for the front doors.

He'd have to pay more attention than usual to controlling his strength.

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Reese had led Michael into the garden, too, after Kaoru had been moved off. It was a bit like a carousel. Takako would have led her off on a brief wander that eventually ended up at the gates before bidding her farewell, and Reese led Michael through the mansion interior to the backdoor.

He was a well-groomed man, dressed in a crisp business suit with extremely fine shoes, polished to a fine shine. His hair was dyed a deep brown to hide the gray, and he kept himself shaved for the same reason. Like Reese he was forty seven, though he looked older than his years.

They started out with pleasantries, as always. How are you? Saw your last movie, very nice. Utopia good? Trying to save the world as always. What about that scandal? Media bullshit as always, you know how it goes. Do I? Of course you do. Wife happy? Doesn't complain. How are the children? Depends on the time of day, really. Do you remember Kelly Milk? Oh, do I ever! First crush. Dan married her you know. I didn't. You coming to the reunion? When's that? Next year. Maybe.

Around and around. Little words, not entirely meant or felt, but not dishonest either. He appreciated them, though. At first, Reese's every movement was tentative, just in case he applied too much pressure when he opened a door, or when he pulled out Michael's chair for him.

With their casual chatter, though, he calmed, and felt his usual center reasserting itself. He noted that the sky was growing overcast. There might be rain later.

After twenty minutes, Takako came out and helped Reese to perform what might have been the stiffest and most resentful tea ceremony in the history of mankind. She placed the small and intricately lacquiered chabako box on the table and opened it, then removed the equipment they needed for the ceremony with slow reverence, placing one tea bowl in front of Reese and Michael. The one addition to the traditional equipment was a small electric stove.

Reese and Takako performed each step, modified for outdoors and conditions. They assembled the stove, which had been designed so it took just as long as the charcoal firepit in the tea house, then filled the kettle with water from the container that came in the chabako.

Then they left the kettle on the stove to boil, and added the tea leaves. While that boiled, Reese took the little sweet box and opened it, running his thumb along the outside of the aged wood. This whole tea set had been a gift, and a greatly valued one, from Takako's family at their wedding. Inside the box were small, soft grey lumps, a little like mocci. Reese offered one to Michael, who mumbled a thanks and took one.

"Careful," Reese said, "they're very sticky. These sweets claim two or three lives a year." He grinned.

Michael raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure murdering a man with sweets is against some sort of code of honour." Nonetheless, he popped it in his mouth and chewed.

Reese liked the tea ceremony. Its cleanliness and order and unbridled rhythm seemed so very Japanese, somehow. Takako had once told him that the tea ceremony was Japan. It gave time to think, and to assess.

While he remained still, with his hands in his lap, but Michael shifted his posture frequently, and with greater rapidity as they waited for the brewing to finish.

This was why Takako did not like him. Well, one of the reasons. She thought him disrespectful. A 'typical' foreigner. Reese had learned to just nod when her rancor was up. Attempting to defend him only led to her opening the flood gates on him, and it tended to end with her upset.

They had a full and proper tea house on the mansion grounds, but Reese never tried to get Michael to go through the whole ceremony. It seemed like a recipe for disaster.

After twenty minutes allowing the tea to steep, Takako opened the kettle and ladelled some of the thin, faintly green liquid into each of their bowls. Here was where it happened.

Reese took up his bowl, and turned it four times, as tradition insisted. He bowed over his tea to Michael, and drank. Michael just lifted the bowl and sipped, with the barest nod. His patience was through, but he at least managed to stay quiet until the entire ritual was done.

Nonetheless, as Reese took the special cleaning cloth, fine silk, beautifully brocaded, and cleaned each of the utensils before returning them to the chabako. Takako finally kissed him on the cheek and took the box back inside, her stride furious.

Most likely she would be heading for the indoor gym to thrash out some anger.

"So," Reese said, "I suppose now is where we get to business, eh?" He raised his bowl and sipped a little more. It was thin and its taste subtle, reminiscent of pine and summer forests.

"Aye, that we do." Michael showed no more interest in the tea. It was something he put up with, not something he particularly enjoyed. "You know what I'm here to ask."

"A man can rarely know for certain what another man intends," Reese said. "But in this case I think I could win money on a bet." He gave a wink.

"Cute. Well, I'll cut to it. Utopia wants you." He pointed one finger at Reese, with his thumb raised.

Reese smiled. "My, how the pitch has simplified! Does it come with a poster in the style of World War one? Or was it two where they had that?"

"One, I think. I'm not going to insult your intelligence, Reese. You're on the N-scale these days, after all. What's it like being brighter than Stephen Hawking these days?"

"A bit like being dumber than him, only in reverse." Reese emptied his tea, and began to pour some more for himself. "So what are you offering this time? Wealth beyond my hyper-intelligent imaginings? Sex beyond my hyper-erect dreams? Unlimited rice pudding? It's hard to get good rice pudding in Japan, which is odd given rice is a staple food here."

Michael chuckled, and took out a box of cigarettes. "May I?"

"It's Japan. They think you're weird if you don't. Thank heaven I erupted," Reese said.

He watched him, though, as he lit up his cigarette and began to smoke. Michael's hand trembled a little. His movements were furtive, he almost fumbled the cigarette on the first try, and stifled a curse when his lighter did not work immediately. Some sort of pressure, perhaps? Trouble at home?

Michael leaned forward and set his elbows on the table, cigarette hanging from two fingers. "How's Hanako?"

An odd question. "She's well," he said. "Clever, curious, and a fast learner. Has a strange love of strays."

"You know of course that she's special. I mean, special special."

"Ah," Reese said, and sipped a little tea. "That. There's no sign of her erupting, Michael. She's been tested plenty of times just in case. Anyway, I thought the eruption was random and they weren't sure what caused it? Why would being descended from me make any difference?"

"That's the point though," Michael said. "We don't know. And if she has... complications down the line, Utopia can help you like nobody else. I mean, how many fertile Novas are there? What if being your child is bad for her? I don't mean anything by that-"

"But you don't know and it's good to be careful," Reese said, and placed his tea bowl on the table. He looked out over the grounds, out towards the bamboo forest where he did much of his daily training. "I'm a rich man these days, Michael. If something happens, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get something sorted out. It's no good reason to make a decision like this, though. You know that."

Michael nodded. It had a resigned feeling to it, like the lines were fed to him. Somebody in Utopia HQ was keen on getting him onboard. Not that he did not know that anyway, of course. Since his eruption eleven years ago he had received more than twenty requests to join Utopia, several delivered via Michael. They had not yet sent any of their various Nova agents to try and persuade him, though, so he supposed they were not desperate for him.

"There's still a place for you in Team Tomorrow. Not the A-Team, of course. Pax has his boys. But you'd be great in any of the B-Teams. Not that I mean to insult you or anything," he went on, almost rambling, losing his composure the way baselines did at times when they thought they had offended a Nova.

Reese shook his head. "Relax, Mike. We've known each other a long time, and we've had this conversation plenty of times. I know I'm never going to bounce chests with Pax. Nor would I want to. As to that... you know why I don't sign up."

Here it was. Michael's expression darkened.

"And it's bullshit."

Reese shrugged. This bit of the conversation came and went. It did not bother him when people mocked his beliefs, though once it would have made him hot and angry. "I am where I belong."

"You're a goddamn Nova, Reese. You belong where you want to belong. You know, I'd get off your back if you were just honest with me. You hide behind this zen bullshit, but that's all it is." He had lost a lot of the polite facade now, and the clean accentless English of a negotiator. There was some Brooklyn drawl in there now.

"No. It's a belief that differs from yours. It's the will of heaven."

He hated those words, did Michael. Were he a cartoon character, a thundercloud would have formed above his head, with lightning flashing from it. He began to fidget, to grind his teeth. "How can a man as powerful as you be such a coward?" He said finally, shaking his head. "You could do... god, sometimes I think the eruption's wasted on you."

Reese took up his bowl again and sipped his tea. "It's always bothered me that a man becomes a Nova, and the world acts as if he's no longer a man." He looked back towards the mansion, at the many wooden shutters all open to keep the air cool. "The man who opposes the will of heaven will ultimately be cast down, and all he does will turn to ashes. What will be will be, regardless of whether I act or no. You say I can do so much, but I say you see things with blinkers on. We all have our place under heaven, and it does no good to struggle against that. I can do no more than I am permitted to do, nor can you, nor Pax, nor anyone else. Novas can't just change the way things are, Mike. I know you tell yourselves that we can, that Utopia's all about that. But you can't. Too much pride, too little sense."

Michael pursed his lips. "And who are you to say what's 'the will of heaven' or not?" He made little quote marks with his fingers when he said that, voice thick with contempt.

"I sense the beginning of a circular argument. Let's avoid that. Do you know much about the concept of the mandate of heaven? I don't believe I've ever explained it to you."

"I heard Geisha mention is once," he murmured.

Reese smiled, hiding it behind his bowl. He poured and refilled.

If Michael had heard anything from Geisha it would have been from a distance, and by chance. He was hardly a higher up in Utopia. No doubt he had met her at one of Utopia's many branches on a diplomatic mission.

"The idea of the Mandate of Heaven is Chinese, probably Buddhist in origin, maybe Taoist, it's too old for anyone to be sure. It's based on four simple ideas. One, the right to rule China stems from Heaven. Two, there's only one legitimate ruler of China. Three, the right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler and h-"

"Reese, what does this matter?"

His eyes hardened, and when she spoke again his tone was threaded with steel. "Don't interrupt me, Mike. You're a guest here. Be polite, or be unwelcome."

Michael Armstrong swallowed. He fidgeted a few times and tapped a finger on the table, but said nothing.

"Now, as I was saying. Three, the right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler and his good performance under the eyes of Heaven. And four, the right to rule may be passed down from father to son, but only on the conditions established above. If the dynasty loses the mandate of Heaven, then a successor is chosen, and that successor can only be known by working out the imponderable force of events in human history."

He fell quiet, then, and sipped his tea. Birds twittered in the trees, and from the roofs of the covered walkways.

After a minute, Michael shrugged. "So? Last I checked, this ain't China."

Reese smiled. "No, it's not. The Mandate of Heaven is a philosophy that props up the idea of singular rulership. Of course there are few monarchies of note in the modern era. But there is one power that rules the world, isn't there?"

"Utopia, right?" Michael did not look impressed. "So we got the mandate of Heaven? I don't see why this is such a hang up."

"Simple. I don't think you do have the mandate. I think you think you do, and you're telling everyone you do, and that sooner or later you're in for a rude awakening."

Michael looked like he might throw his tea right in Reese's face. He would not, of course. He had done that, once, when this discussion had happened the first time and grown altogether more heated. Reese had caught the tea in his bowl, mid-flight, without spilling a drop. "Justify that. Try and justify that. I dare ya."

Reese nodded. "I don't need to. You're doing it for me. I find you a good exemplar of Utopia, Michael. You are a basically good man. I would not tolerate you here if that were not the case. Yet you treat me with contempt for the crime of not agreeing with you and dedicating my every thought and waking moment to the furthering of Utopia's goals. Is Utopia right, though?" Reese turned away a little, and looked up, narrowing his eyes as the sun near-shone into his eyes. "I don't know. Utopia has done so much good, but it has no respect. There is Utopia's way or the wrong way. Utopia seems to me like an exuberant child given too many toys. Only its toys are people, Novas, and at times it seems that any toy it's bored with gets thrown away. Utopia would change the world, but what if the world does not wish to be changed? So many things are happening all at once. The heavens are in turmoil. If Utopia has the Mandate... then all will be well, and I will be a fool. But if so," he shrugged, "no harm is done. We can share sake and laugh at my foolishness. If not... if not, then one day you will learn, Michael, that no strength of arms can change the will of Heaven, and that everything you build can be torn back down."

Reese drifted into silence, and looked back at Michael. He did not seem to know how to respond to that. The words had not swayed him at all, of course, but he found himself unsure of how to proceed.

"You mock me for choosing to remain here," Reese said, choosing to continue rather than wait, "but what are you mocking me for? For choosing to be a father, raising my children, taking care of my wife. I have a dojo, too, and students that need me. Heaven gave me children, Michael. Before and after I erupted. I was not given the power to terraform the world, or to make the cruel turn kind with a word and a smile. No, I've lived my life as a martial artist, a warrior, and my eruption made me a greater one. They tell me I'm like to live three or maybe four hundred years. Would you have me fight for all that time?"

"Well... yes! Fight to protect the weak, the innocent. You know, that hero stuff! You can be a hero, Reese. I know the endorsements and the paycheques and all that aren't all that necessary for you, you can make millions doing movies. But you can't be a hero, not a real one."

"Does it look like I need to be a hero?" Reese frowned slightly. "Do you think me so shallow? I'm not the self-aggrandizing type. You want to change the world. I want to live in it. Caestus Pax, and Geisha, and Ragnarockkette and all the rest of them, they have friends but they don't have families. They have no reason not to be heroes. But I do, Michael. I do. Heroes die, as I believe Team Tomorrow discovered when they had that messy clash with Devries a few years back. I'm not afraid of death, but I will not have my girls grow up without a father. One's already having to deal without her mother, and that's quite enough. My fight is not righting the wrongs of the world or deciding what should or should not be allowed in a corner of the world I've never heard of let alone lived in. My fight is getting two girls through puberty into adulthood, and helping them grow up to be good women."


"But nothing," Reese said, and now that thread of iron returned to his voice. "All men have a place, and it does no good to try and rise above it. This is mine, and it still is. My eruption changed nothing, even though it changed everything."

Now there was a contradiction and a half.

Michael looked out over the burbling stream towards the bamboo forest, his features drawn. "You could be so much, Reese. So much more. I mean, Reese... you could be a role model. To other Novas. You're a fuckin' family man! You're not some playboy wannabe superhero. I imagine you've seen some of the backlash against Utopia?"

Reese shrugged. He felt glad to move on, to relax again. "I can't say I've paid too much attention. Kiku's mentioned it a few times, though, and I overheard some of her friends talking about it when they visited the other week."

"Well there's been a little. Mothers sometimes, and we're a bit hard to relate to at times. It's all high-falutin' ideals and shiny looks. You, though," he took a puff from his cigarette, "you are relatable, my man. A Nova father? That's a big deal."

"Not to me," Reese said. "Nor should it be. I'm a father. A. Singular. The Nova part is... circumstantial. I was a father before, and a father after. It changed everything, but it had no effect on that. I don't need to prove anything to the world, Michael. If I'm so inspirational, words will pass, people will hear, and they will be inspired. True inspiration isn't some media creation, it isn't something that's shouted from the rooftops. It's word of mouth. It's earthy and it's wild and emotional. Utopia would package me. Sell me. It would not be real."

He was not sure that he had expressed that well enough. Yet at the moment he had no better words. He could not say he 'feared' but he expected that Utopia would make of him what it wanted, it would whitewash his faults and emphasize his positives. He preferred people to see him as he was, and make their own minds up.

Nova or not, and whether or not it was a fair point of view, Reese still thought on the level of 'man to man'. Utopia seemed like they thought of themselves as above that.

Then out of nowhere, Michael looked him right in the eyes and said, "I wonder, did you ever find out who planted that bomb? Who killed Mariko?"

Reese felt a surge in his heart and his belly, and old remembered pains came swarming out of the dark places in his mind. He thought he might lose control, and break something. Not because of the surprise, but because of that ghost-whisper in his mind. That taunting, arrogant, hateful voice.

"You have to remember something: Everybody pities the weak; jealousy you have to earn."

Oh, he'd earned that. He earned Stark's jealousy. Nobody could ever prove who laid the bomb that caused his eruption, killed his wife and could have killed Kiku. But Reese knew who had left it all the same.

"Jealousy you have to earn."

All he did was stare Michael down, though, only his left eye spasmed, and when he spoke his voice had the barest tremble. "No. I never did. Did you?"

"We never looked," Michael said. "But if you were part of Utopia..."

Reese blinked, breaking the stare, and looked down into his bowl. He had the urge to crush it into powder. It was wrong to use her like that. Her memory deserved better. After a moment or two, he looked back up, indignant. "Tell me, Mike. Do all good men need favours done to do good things? Or is that unique to superheroes?"

Michael had the good grace to look ashamed.

"I believe you should go." He put his bowl down.

He did not question. He just stubbed out his cigarette, stood, and headed for the door.

"And Michael," Reese called, not looking back, "don't ever mention Mariko again."

Reese remained sitting for some time. When Takako came and put her hands on his shoulders, quarter of an hour later, he could feel the tension in his own shoulders, and how tentative was her touch. Her Nova husband. Who could crush her into powder with a mistimed shrug.

He covered one of her hands with his own.

"What did they say to lure you this time, my love?"

"Things they shouldn't have," Reese said, and rose. He took a deep breath and sighed. "I am going into the bamboo grove to train. I'll be back later. Much later."

She did not question. Takako gave him a sympathetic smile, offering him comfort if he needed it. But there was always going to be a chasm where his first wife was concerned. That pain belonged to Reese and Kiku alone. She could never share in it.

He strode from the garden and towards the grove, trembling with rage, barely in control. A light rain began to fall.

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The scarecrow American was still in that dingy shop when Ishimura came to see him that day. His clothes were dirty, he looked unwashed. But it did nothing to diminish him. Those watery grey eyes still made him twitchy, and his monotone voice made him think of machines and monsters and other inhuman things.

"Ishimura," he said. He was sitting at the room's one table, looking through the gaps in massive tower of cards. "How's the weather?"

Yoshihiro Ishimura shook some of the rain off his umbrella. "Seems we've got a summer storm building out there. All the better."

"Michael Armstrong visited today," the man said, tone cold and disinterested. "What did he ask of our resident superstar?"

"I'm not sure. I was attending Kiku for most of the afternoon. She's having some trouble with a friend so she wanted to go out riding. Takako had me in the stables. Whatever it was, it's put Reese in a foul mood. He didn't turn up for dinner, went off into the grove to train. Most like he'll be there until night falls."

Ishimura had tried to put urgency into his tone, to get a reaction from the man, but nothing. Not a flicker. Not a twitch. He just watched him. "The girls are vulnerable!" He said.


One word, flat of tone and inflection, yet somehow it threw everything into doubt. "W-Well, yes."

"How far is it from the bamboo grove to the mansion main building?" The scarecrow man asked, leaning forward now and reaching up to take the top level off the card tower.

Ishimura shifted uncomfortable. "About three hundred meters from the center. Reese usually goes quite deep in to train."

The man nodded, placing two cards atop each other in front of him, and pushing a lock of his dirty blond hair back. "How fast is Reese Kennedy Kincaid when he wants to be?"

"Quite fast."

The man paused, and turned his grey eyes on Ishimura. The expression seemed so bland, so lacking in emotional content, that it seemed to suck out all the feeling in him as well. His nerves diminished, his eagerness vanished. He felt foolish.

"He can run that distance inside nine seconds. Probably five if he's panicked. How do you think he'll respond to hearing one of his beloved daughters scream?"

"Quite badly."

"You're fond of that word, Ishimura. There's no 'quite' with Novas. There's 'is' and 'isn't'. Reese could kill either of us with a backhand. This seems to suggest that caution is a worthwhile investiture of time, don't you think?"

Ishimura nodded.

"Quite," the man said, and continued to take his tower apart. "Don't try to think, Ishimura. You might hurt yourself. Just watch, and report. We'll act when the time comes. As for the girls, I do believe that children go missing from school all the time."

"Won't that cause a fuss?" Ishimura said, frowning. "I mean, after Slider..."

"They're the children of one of Japan's most beloved action movie stars, and one of them is a child born of a Nova post-eruption. Their disappearance will cause a fuss anyway." He dismantled another level of the tower, without the whole falling down. "That's why timing is everything, Ishimura. Damage is inevitable. So we will act to limit it. And we will do that, when the time comes."

He finished dismantling the tower, and put the deck of cards together. Then he looked up at Ishimura, and gestured at the other side of the table. "Game of cards?"

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