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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - COMPLETE [INTERLUDE] Old Friends, Old Enemies


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2nd April, 2027

It still haunted her, a little. Sakura, lying atop her bed-self, peaceful in sleep, a vision of motherly beauty. Bathed in sun, kissed by wind, surrounded by trees and flowers, the girl seemed so divine that it burned.

Chang still itched from the effort to find the right way to put it into shape. There was something there, she knew. There always was when she faded out like that, but beating on it with her mind was no help and never would be. Her instincts were true, but they were not swift. It would take time for it to form something solid. She thought it would be a song. Sakura felt like a song.

That said…

She was walking through the backrooms of Meh’Lindi’s Bowls and Grill, listening to the sound of bowling balls hitting pins, the shout of happy baselines, and the sound of meat grilling behind the bar. Drinks were being opened and spilled. Some were even drunk, too. Her goal lay beneath the concrete and steel, below the machines and the guts of the building, in the basement. She made her way out back to the loading dock, where the building received its deliveries of food and other needed goods.

The entrance to the basement was hidden here, accessible by code lock only, and the box was high up on a wall near the back of the building at the loading dock. Chang lengthened her torso up ten feet to reach it, inputted the number, and contracted once again.

With a soft rumble of gears and hiss of electronics, the mechanics activated and a seemingly solid wall panel pulled back and slid open.

Chang entered into the loading lift beyond. Rather than hit the button to descend, she let her body go to coils. All her limbs stretched out, bonelessly writhing around her. She squeezed her head through a tiny hole in the grated lift, moaned softly as the rest of her followed, her cock especially tightening impossibly.

Then she plummeted to the ground below in a mass, before whipping back together. She slipped through the minute gap in the elevator doors and blossomed out in the spacious corridor beyond.

As she walked onward, her long, silken black hair wrapped around her and formed into a faux-silk scarlet gown, patterned with golden dragons and manticores in battle.

The scent of blood tickled her nostrils.

She could hear Meh’Lindi – it could only be Meh’Lindi – moving further on. A series of heavy steps, dull and heavy thuds each one, a whispery sound. Something wet and meaty.

Chang felt a tightening in her guts. Meh’Lindi used to be a Harvester, close to Leviathan. She had run with the man in his favourite little ‘hunt the baseline’ game. Ostensibly, by coming over to Chang she left that behind her, but blood stained deep, and after one had killed enough it became quite difficult to stop. This much she knew from speaking with friends, and hoped never to know herself. Every life she had taken was only done with due consideration.

She moved through two right angles in the corridor, the walls were simple, unadorned grey concrete, with bare strip lighting overhead; a concession for visitors. Meh’Lindi preferred the dark.

Chang quickened her step. When she reached the end of the corridor, though, she came to a sudden halt.

The room before her had a vaulted ceiling and a complex, gothic feel to its architecture. Many columns rose from floor to ceiling, all artfully decorated and carved. Chang worked on those herself, shaping gargoyles and bare-breasted female busts with toothed and rending teeth instead of nipples. The imagery was Meh’Lindi’s choice. The lighting was dim, so that the shadows were deep save where spot lights were shone.

At Chang’s feet there was a corpse. It was Shiv. Her head had been torn clean off, and the blood she smelled came from the stump, along with a travery of spine. Her copious breasts were still buckled in, her arms likewise tight behind her back.

“My queen,” came an unnaturally deep, raspy but unquestionably feminine voice. A great shadow moved off to the right, and Chang stepped into the room to get a clearer look.

Meh’Lindi towered above her, near thirty feet tall in all and standing upon a raised platform in one corner of the room. Her upper torso was humanoid, but defining it as human would have been a stretch. Interlocking plates of red and silver-grey covered her body from hip to head, over her forehead and eyes, her cheeks and the back of her head. Her thin-lipped mouth and the area around it showed human skin, but all the rest was hard and unyielding. Her hips melded smoothly down into a gigantic, multi-legged lower body which spread out behind her like some sort of twisted centaur. But there was nothing horsey to her. Her lower body was clad in iron-hard grey flesh, with six long spindly limbs sprouting from it, and across the front where genitals might be there was instead a huge maw as wide as a truck bonnet, filled with huge gnashing teeth.

Behind her, lit up by artfully arranged spotlights, was an enormous Christmas tree, and atop it, dripping blood onto the branches, was Shiv’s head, her eyes still covered by red leather, her long brown hair still trapped in a high ponytail.

Chang stepped over Shiv’s body and approached the platform. “What is the meaning of this?” She kept her voice even.

“We are practicing.” It was Shiv’s head that spoke, from atop the tree. Her voice was a ravaged, hideous thing, cracked and broken. Chang could hear air running over tortured vocal chords. At the same time she heard a soft whir and pumping sound, issuing from the tree. She focused, studying it, tightening her eyes to peel away the layers of tree to reveal the machinery underneath.

Meh’Lindi turned her body all the way and dipped her front legs, bowed with her humanoid torso and spread her arms out to either side in a unique bow. “I did not know you were coming.”

Chang nodded. “You have my apologies for not sending word. So what are you two up to? If I understand correctly, you have designed that ‘tree’ to function as an artificial lung. Correct?”

“Correct,” Meh’Lindi rumbled. Her human mouth grinned with satisfaction.

“I am singing,” Shiv said. She followed the words with a sound, half-moan, half-groan. Pain or pleasure, it was hard to say.

Meh’Lindi rose from her bow, thudding her front legs down and lifting her up once more. “We came up with the idea last week. It may not be seasonal, but something about it speaks to us. She’s going to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in a live OpNet cast.”

“In that voice?”

“Yes,” Meh’Lindi said, with her lower mouth. Her human mouth gave a little smile. “Well, something that sounds similar, at least. I’m experimenting with damaging her throat in different ways to get the right sound. Shiv’s the singer, after all, not me. Until she’s satisfied we’ll keep experimenting. Do you need something of us, your grace?”

Chang studied the image. Shiv’s face, tight-wrapped in its leather bondage gear, her pouting lips stained red with lipstick and the line of blood that had run down from her mouth to her chin, and the tears in her neck staining the upper branches of the tree red with blood. She imagined her singing the song, in that ravaged voice, croaking from where a star would be. There were loops of Christmas lights on the tree, and shining baubles, too.

Her lip quirked in a smile, and she nodded to Meh’Lindi. “I like it. Disturbing, to be sure, but I like it. I require Shiv, actually.”

“Of course, my queen,” Meh’Lindi said. She looked up at Shiv. “Are we done today, Angela?”

“Yes,” she croaked. “For now. Unplug me.”

Meh’Lindi reached up with both hands, and carefully lifted Shiv’s head from the tree. She put the head upon the ground and rotated her huge body to manipulate the controls on a console. Chang heard the tree-lung shut down.

Shiv’s head shuddered, and a mass of flesh began to boil out of the stump. Chang could hear bones beginning to take shape, muscles knitting, that strange internal structure forming. She had no idea how Shiv’s body ‘worked’. She had no identifiable organs.

Meh’Lindi pottered about the platform, shutting down the lights, then stepped over Shiv’s reforming body and moved off deeper into the room, past several columns. “If you do not require me, my queen, I will retire to my laboratory. I put some samples into the centrifuge hours ago and they should be done by now.”

“You have my leave to go, Meh’Lindi. I will arrange a social call soon, but business calls today.”

“As ever, your grace,” Meh’Lindi said, and walked off.

Shiv’s body took shape, her curves firming, breasts erupting and growing big and round. With a soft click, like ice cracking, the process completed, and she took a breath, her ruby red lips slightly parted. “Beautiful,” she whispered.

Her naked breasts surged, swelled a little, pressed together. Then leather boiled out from her cleavage, washing down over her in a way it should not. As she rose to her feet, the leather mass hardened into elbow length gloves which dragged her arms violently behind her back and tied themselves together at the wrists. They pulled so tight her shoulders seemed to have dislocated. A dull red leather corset now adorned her body and hid her nakedness, intense en pointe boots to the thigh. A brown leather strap went across her breasts, the only thing covering them, buckled off to one side with a padlock.

Shiv gasped. Her throat bulged, and the flesh disgorged a necklace of white pearls, from which a key of green jade hung, and rested just a little above her breasts.

Chang slowly unclenched her jaw. She shook her head. Something about that was unconscionably arousing. The wrongness of it did not escape her notice, but still, it was pleasant. Her cock had stiffened, swelling to be thicker even than Shiv’s body. The urge to plunge it into her, to stretch her out, or to let those peculiar and hungry breasts feed and suckle on it, swamped her mind for a moment.

After a few moments, though, Chang violently shoved those thoughts into the back of her head. This is not quite what I had in mind, she mused sourly. “Are you feeling better?” She asked, her four voices pleasant, but one had a breathy, lusty quality.

“Much,” Shiv said. With her throat repaired, her voice was smooth, warm, deep and feminine. “What need have you of me, my queen?”

“I need you to take care of a guest for a short while, the young nova I met in the Congo.”

“Sakura,” Shiv said. It was not a question. Her memory seemed almost flawless at times.

“Indeed. She will be arriving at the back of the club in about an hour. I’ve briefed you on the effect she has on people already. You’ve always shown a strong will before, see that you put it to use here,” Chang said, all the lust vanishing from her voice as she spoke.

Shiv’s perfect, ruby red lips curved into a smile. “I will endeavour to avoid stuffing her into my cleavage and hiding her away from the world, my queen. In truth I have never been very possessive. I’m curious to see what effect she will have. It may be enlightening.”

“See that’s all it is. All of my wife are busy making arrangements, I only need you to take care of her for a short time. Maybe half an hour. Give her a tour of the back rooms if she desires it, provide her with food, drink, entertainment. Anything she might want.”

“Access to the crèche?”

“That too, if she likes, which she may. Not that there’s much to see. She startles easily, and I do not want her panicked in this of all places.”

Chang began to walk back toward the elevator. Shiv followed, near-soundless. Her outfit rendered her gait strange, her posture tortured, yet she never showed a hint of weakened balance. “And when she asks where you are?”

“I have to complete the arrangements Lucrezia is putting in motion. Some other travel arrangements, in fact. Count Orzais will be joining us later this evening. On top of that there’s securing appropriate building crews, putting the necessary measures in place to prevent this all being traced, moving money… truly, Shiv, it’s annoying how much work it takes when you need to do something secretly.”

“As you say, my queen.”

They wound to the elevator, and Chang punched the button. She turned to Shiv as the machinery stirred, and leaned over to kiss her upon the lips and lick away some of the dried blood. She then lowered her head and kissed Shiv once on the upper swell of each breast. The flesh of the second stirred, warped, formed into a pair of fleshy lips that kissed her back.

Inside the elevator, that flesh whipped out as a tendril to hit the button. Chang frowned.

“I thought you needed to be ‘unlocked’ before you would do that?” She said.

“Normally. It is easier now than before. I do not think I am compelled as strongly. There are changes inside me, my queen. Wondrous changes. I believe this song will be critical. At the end of this, I may owe Meh’Lindi much. We must talk soon, of Teras, and chrysalis, and many good things that are coming.”

The elevator rose, clanked to a stop and opened. They walked out and Chang closed the secret door. “I would like that very much. At the very least, I’m thrilled by what you’ve done with your voice. I have to confess, in all my years I’ve never considered mutilating my own throat to get a different sound.”

Shiv gave a shrug that seemed like it ought to have popped her shoulders right out of their sockets. “I believe that such requires a rarefied way of thinking, my queen. You cannot regenerate as I, nor survive what I can. My gifts offer this chance to me. Is this not what I must do with them? Either I must kill… or I must make beautiful and disturbing things.”

“Or kill in beautiful and disturbing ways,” Chang said, in a tone lacking judgement. “Make sure Sakura stays safe, Shiv. I’ll see you later. And remember: resist the way you feel around her, as best you can. This is a test for you.”

Chang left her there and left the building through the loading bay doors, squeezing herself flat and emerging outside. She concentrated, and her body snapped up into the air, stretching at incredible speed across the city.

A lot could go wrong with Sakura on her own. Chang did not intend to leave that risk window open for long.

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A dark-skinned young man dressed impeccably in a red suit met Sakura in own now-standard cream-colored tunic and soft brown leggings the garden behind her apartments. Chang had described him and told her that he would take her to the basement of the Rainbow Room, without the time and danger of travel as the verdant nova had requested. He was curious as to the what and why's of the strange location and the obvious desire for discretion, but he was acting on a favor he owed Narcosis and Chang had apparently called a favor of her own from the leader of the Pandaimoniom.

He bowed to Sakura, his eyes widening at the sight of her; he'd been warned, but no words in any baseline language could convey the entirety of meeting the Blossom Princess for the first time. His commitment to his mentor kept him polite and Sakura's aura ensured that he would carry out his orders to transfer her safely with every inch of him - whenever she wanted, whatever the danger. "Miss Sakura, neh?" His accent was a cosmopolitan mix of Europe and Africa, pleasing to hear if occasionally difficult to understand for the less linguistically inclined. He held a hand out to her, in the Old World manner.

She smiled and his memory wavered for a moment on anything outside of that smile; she let him take his hand and kiss her skin. "Yes. You must be Mr. Gids. It's a pleasure to meet you, and thank you for your help with my travelling today."

Gids lowered her hand from his lips, but kept a hold of her. "Are you ready to depart, then?"

She nodded and they faded silently from the garden and came back into being in the basement of the Rainbow Room. Shiv was waiting for them, perfectly punctual, and dismissed Gids with a curt nod. The gentleman hesitated and said softly to his momentary charge, "If you have need to travel again, ask Shiv or the Mirror Queen for my contact information. I will be available."

It took another curt "look" from the blind bondage nova for him to again fade out of reality with one last look at the Blossom Princess. The red (and scantily clad) nova took a deep breath; Chang had been right, this would be a test. This nova could be the alternative to Bounty, to be unbound from the Nursery, that Chang had wanted to see for some time. Shiv kept her expression neutral, but inwardly scowled at the girl: after only one meeting with her mistress, the girl had agreed to be taken blindly to a secret hide-out with no discernible method of escape if her new "friends" turned out to be less than honest. More than that, Chang's explanation of her conversation with Sakura had revealed that the she was some sort of hippy-like pacifist. She needed protecting - and a good lesson about the realities of the world, but that would have to come later. For now, she was to make Chang's new companion comfortable, not terrified or defensive.

Sakura observed Shiv even as the bound woman did the same. She looked odd, contorted in her outfit, but didn't seem to be in discomfort or pain. The cover over her face was a little distracting; Sakura liked to be able to look people in eyes and read their expression, but commenting on it might be rude. There very well might be a reason beyond fashion sense that the half-mask was in place. She started slightly when a tendril whipped out from Shiv's breast to a number pad well hidden at the top of the wall in the basement and deftly punched in a code. The wall panel ground its way back and Shiv tilted her head to indicate that they should enter the elevator; once inside, the tendril pressed the button to take the elevator down and then retreated back into her flesh.

A moment of silence passed.

"Um, I'm Sakura. It's nice to meet you. You're Shiv, right? Chang described you to me, a little." Her voice was soft, like leaves in the wind. Gentle. Vulnerable.

Shiv shivered as she fought the impulses inside her and nodded. "Yes. You are Sakura, also called Konohanasakuyahime, which I am told is a mythical Japanese kami that was the mother of mankind. Also that it translates to the Blossom Princess. Do you wish to be addressed as "Your Highness"?"

Had Sakura known the leather-bound nova better, she might have picked up on the utterly understated teasing in the question; as it was, the nascent mother blushed and stammered out, "N-no, thank you though. Sakura is fine. Please."

Shiv's lips twitched into a grin as she realized just how high that had gone over Sakura's head. "As you wish." She managed to keep from laughing, but just barely.

The doors swished open, allowing them into the underground corridor. They entered a vast complex of rooms that ran well past the footprint of the bar above. Only the bare bones had been built so far, with markers for where unbuilt walls would be installed, holes for more elevators to run down several more levels underground, and the main cables that would power the complex. There were a few staircases for construction built to allow access to those lower levels already and the two novas explored the vast complex.

"Our Queen is securing materials needed to ensure that the walls and furniture in the complex will be able to withstand the...enthusiasm...of young novas, as well as to provide more protection in the event of a security breach-"

"You mean an attack. I understand the precariousness of the situation. There is no need to avoid unpleasant words with me."

More backbone that I thought. Well, that's promising at least. "Yes, an attack. It will also provide as much protection as we can from discovery, such as sonar scanning, EM scans, or heat scans." Shiv waved at the empty spaces several levels down. "Parts of the creche will be left unfinished, to allow us to accommodate novas that more extreme in their selves or their needs. The Queen said that you would like to be involved in decorating the area once the fundamentals are in place?"

"Yes. Some families may need to remain here for long periods of time. Isolation from the outside world and the pressure of fear or dread can be devastating to the mind. The more natural, open, and pleasant we can make the creche feel, the less stressful it will be to remain inside. I've already begun to look for items and arrangements that may work, though getting the actual dimensions of the rooms that will be finished first will aid greatly. Do you mind taking the time to do that now?"

The red leather creaked as Shiv nodded; pen and paper were acquired from Shiv's mysterious and ample cleavage, and the two began the long and tedious process of writing out the measurements marked on the floor for each room, level by level.

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Chang Zha-Yang loved to stretch. It was her oldest power, the one that saved her on the night of her eruption. It was like being touched all over and deep inside, not quite a lover’s caress but a pleasurable feeling nonetheless.

She was so high up that she could see all of Ibiza laid out below her, now arcing downwards, limbs and torso and neck all stretching longer and ever longer. Once she had been limited to a dozen meters. That had grown over time and use, though.

Now she could go for kilometres. Sometimes, in the occasional waking vision-dreams that had come to replace true sleep, she could feel herself wrapped around the entire world, a band of flesh girdling the planet. While nowhere near that level yet, she could reach anywhere on Ibiza from anywhere in Ibiza; she felt confident that time and practice would continue to extend her limits.

The thin sheet of her body quivered with arousal at the idea.

Chang scanned her eyes over the city below, studying, watching until she saw the landing point: a balcony off the upper floor of a high class hotel on ibiza’s north coast.

She streaked down, softened, and as the stone came streaking up to meet her Chang splashed. The rest of her followed, retracting like a whip cord and melting as it joined with her swelling mass. In moments she filled the balcony, began to pour off it in a fleshy wave, oozed through the bars and flowed around the tables.

A minute later all of her was together, though. The thin points of her legs melted into one that became her head, and Chang reformed herself, standing on the balcony. For a few moments her flesh surged and rippled, but then settled.

Narcosis had come to the balcony doors, clad in a red dress that hung from her like silken curtains framing a tapestry. A champagne flute was held between the fingers of her right hand, half-full. Her long blond hair hung halfway down her back, though it would likely be another colour in a minute or two. She could be rather fickle that way. Her beauty was not as awe-inspiring as once it had been, though, not to Chang, who almost equalled it in her own twisted way.

Chang’s cock answered Narcosis’ presence, though, and hardened. Her three nipples stiffened. It had been some time since they last slept together. Chang’s own hair blew in the evening air, raven-black and hanging down to her feet.

On the other side of the glass, Narcosis arched her eyebrow in a sceptical manner. “Well, no need to ask if you’re pleased to see me.” She chuckled. “You know, someone is probably watching you with binoculars right now and masturbating with such fury that they might catch fire.”

Chang smiled at her. “And also wondering why they can’t stop. Are you going to let me in?”

“I’m not sure if I dare,” Narcosis replied. “You look quite the succubus tonight, and I’m not at all sure if I’m in the mood for a ravishing. You’re like to ruin my dress. As usual,” she added, with a devilish grin.

“I will let myself in, then,” Chang said.

Her cock itself stretched up, bending unnaturally, and split into several tendrils that wormed between the balcony doors and undid the latch. She made no effort to hide her pleasure.

“You do insist on taking the fun out of things sometimes,” Narcosis said as the doors swung open. “Now get decent. I’m the one with the terrible, slutty reputation, not you, and I resent people stealing my gimmick.” She said the last with a haughty expression.

Chang walked inside, her hair already flaring as her cock returned to normal size and shape. Strands enwrapped her limbs and member, dragged the latter up against her chest and cocooned it. The hair grew thicker and thicker around her, and after three strides formed into a single piece leather cat suit. Rather than make shoes out of hair, she reshaped her feet, pushing her heels down into dramatic points that forced her to walk en pointe.

Narcosis observed her coolly. “Subtle as ever, I see.”

“Subtlety is for Tuesdays.”

It was a private dining room, with a single table set for two, and lit by a chandelier of glimmering crystal. A bookcase of varnished mahogany occupied one wall, but the other three were hung with tapestries and paintings, all but one of them creations of Chang’s or her devotees in the Pandaimonion. The last was a creation of the avant-garde Nova artist named The Muse. They were a mixed bag, she thought, some obscene and suggestive, some abstract. The Muse’s painting depicted what seemed to be a storm of carrion crows over a field of wheat, but atop each stalk was the head of a Nova child. Or at least Chang assumed they were meant to be Novas. All had some oddity, be it strange eyes or hair, or odd-looking skin.

“An odd choice,” Chang said, nodding at The Muse’s work as she moved to her side of the table and formed a chair for herself. Narcosis had served liver and onions for herself, a mixture of fried rice and dim sum for Chang.

“Oh?” Narcosis sat as well, gesturing at a tray of crushed ice in which the open bottle of champagne was nestling. “And do help yourself to a drink, dear. It’s excellent stuff.”

Chang glanced. “One of my Alchemist’s vintages,” she said. That sealed it. She morphed her right hand into her favourite obsidian goblet, and filled it with the bubbling champagne.

“So what is your issue with The Muse’s little work there? I presume it’s the usual one.”


“No? No complaint about it depicting the apparent massacre of Nova children in an ambiguous and debatably positive light?”

Chang shrugged. “Idiots make art as well as visionaries. No, my complaint is that his brushwork is only a little above baseline and his entire reputation is based on sensationalism. I’m almost tempted to think you’re insulting me and mine by putting this single work up there with ours.”

Narcosis’ eyes, green as emeralds, glimmered. “Me? Surely not.”

I see. That’s the way we’re going to be, is it? With the tone appropriately set, Chang stretched the thumb and forefinger of her left hand into chopsticks, and began to eat. “Well, you called me here, not the other way round. What did you wish to say?” Sakura was waiting back at the Rainbow Room. Well, not waiting, no doubt she was busy in the Creche by now.

Narcosis placed her glass down and put a pristine white cloth in her lap, then took up her knife and fork. “Your behaviour is raising questions, as of late.”

“Fascinating,” Chang said. She sampled one of the dim sum. Her sense of taste was almost unsurpassed, even amongst Novas. She could taste every element of the dim sum, and could tell how long it had been since they were cooked, how fresh they were, everything. They were of reasonable quality. The cook had put in a few too many grains of salt. She counted five hundred sixty three, and it was not good salt, either. Narcosis was being very bitchy today. Chang had grown very picky about food after her sense of taste developed. She did not need to eat at all, so if she was going to she saw no good reason to have anything but food she would like. Narcosis, Orzais, and all her other common dining partners were in possession of exacting and precise recipes for these sorts of occasion.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“I’m an artist. Some would say that if my behaviour is not annoying somebody, I’m doing it wrong.”

Narcosis’ expression shifted a minute amount, but she mastered herself before the annoyance really showed. “Lameea came to me the other day,” she said, cutting into the liver, “in tears.”

“How touching.”

“Chang,” Narcosis said, and now her voice possessed a warning edge to it, “this will not do. Razorspine was one thing and bad enough at that, but Lameea is one of ours.”

“Add a ‘y’ to that, have me say it, and you’re on to something,” Chang replied. She popped one of the dim sum into her mouth, chewed, made a face. “By the way, I disapprove of this particular bit of pettiness. You know how much I love dim sum.” They were her favourite food, after a special salad she had come up with that mixed lettuce, pickled onions with sprinkles of broken glass and gold dust.

Narcosis did not appreciate the rebuke, clearly. Her pale cheeks reddened a little. “You know, it stuns me that someone so manifestly intelligent can be such a bloody stubborn fool at times. No offense,” she said, popping a chunk of liver into her mouth.

“None taken,” Chang replied, three of her voices maintaining a cool and pleasant tone, the fourth ringing with a girlish titter.

“With the damage done to Nova Vigilance, The Primacy and The Harvesters, we’re weaker than ever. Unity is needed, Chang. What is not needed is for you to be seen reducing a notable terat, superb dancer and good friend of mine to tears on the dance floor. We have a chance to really seize the reins of this movement and shape its future. That’s not going to happen if we fall to infighting.”

Chang nodded mildly, and washed some rice down with champagne. Having been poured from The Alchemist’s veins before it was bottled the champagne at least was divine.

“We should make a united front,” Narcosis said. “You, me, Sin-Eater and Orzais standing together means we’ll have controlling say in everything that happens when the Pantheon meets. And things are going to happen, dearie. If the Teragen is going to survive Utopia’s latest gain, we need to guide it well. Yes?”

She was not so sure, and had not been for months. “No, not especially. It’s too much. The three of us were bad enough as a terrible trio, but a fearsome foursome?” She shook her head and absorbed some wine through the bottom of the goblet, rather than bothering with her mouth. “It’ll radicalize Geryon. He’s a revolutionary at heart – oh, I know we all are – but he more so than most. He fights the power, and if he sees us uniting as one mind… it’ll drive him toward The Primacy. You know he’s friendly with Scrambler, and how persuasive he can be when he puts his mind to it. No, Narcosis, I repudiate it. There will be no unity for unity’s sake. If I disagree with what is said by you, Orzais or anyone else, I will make sure you hear of it.”

Narcosis ground her teeth together. She managed to hide it behind her lips, but Chang heard the sound. “And Lameea?”

“Has hopefully learned her lesson. I will defend the Teragen with my life and soul, Narcosis, and never more so than against those who would bring shame on us. As it stands Lameea is just a vain baseline with some pretty snake coils. It’s revolting,” Chang said. “She could be so much more.”

“In your hands?” Narcosis said, her voice quiet and cold.

Chang did not rise to it. “In somebody’s. You’re doing a terrible job with her.” It’s been a lot of years, Narcosis. And Orzais is not the only one who has never gone into Chrysalis.

“Why thank you.” Her tone was ice now.

“Don’t be childish. One failure does not taint all you’ve done. It’s not as if all of my students have been sterling successes, either. I see more of her than you do, and I tell you she is going wrong.”

“I disagree.”

“Unfortunately for her,” Chang said. “Thank you for not attempting to drug me, by the way. I can tell my stance on these issues is vexing you.”

Narcosis gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “There’s no bloody point in drugging you, is there? Last time I tried you tasted it and spat the wine out before it could have an effect. Believe me, I did think of it.”

“Thank you, all the same.”

Narcosis took a deep, chest-jutting breath, and settled to eat. For a few minutes that was all they did. Chang listened to the sound of it, and the world outside. She had been seen stretching across the skyline, as usual. A group of Nova watching tourists were talking excitedly about it. They had been on a beach when she went overhead. She remembered their voices, and that the blond man was pretty. German, by the sound of him, though his English was excellent.

As they went on, Chang developed a suspicion. This talk of unity felt like a set up. Narcosis was no fool. She kept very close eye on Chang and was friendly with most of her inner circle. She had to have known how this conversation would go before it even began. No. She does know. What are you up to?

She found out as they were finishing the meal. Narcosis struck up casual conversation at first, filling Chang in on a few random happenings. Then she sprung it. “The Count’s going to be on TV again soon, you know. There’s yet another documentary being put together all about him.”

“I’ll pass on my congratulations,” Chang said. “His ability to keep people interested in his doings is admirable. I’d have thought even he would be getting bored of the attention by now.”

“Well that’s just the thing, see. He is a little bored. The same old questions, the same old answers, a few words changed here and there. It’s all rather humdrum, really. He wants to give the public something special this time round.”

Chang stilled. There was mischief in that voice. Pure mischief. “Oh yes? What does he have in mind?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Narcosis said. “No this is all my idea.”

That was a lie. Chang knew it instantly and absolutely, the way she did when anybody lied to her. Some could fool her, but they were few in number and she rarely met them. Only Orzais could do it, of the entire Pantheon. Mal probably could as well, but Chang had caught him out a few times, too. Lucrezia could fool her every time, though. Chang found that endearing.

“So what’s the big idea?” Chang said, all four voices sweet as honey.

“Well, I thought we could give them,” she gave a little shimmy of her hips, “you.”

“I rather think not,” Chang said. She did not like television. She liked interviews even less. Back in the early days of her career when she was still releasing her music through Pantheon Productions, Chang had done publicity interviews. They were always a waste of time, and annoying. Then there was that time when they accused her of being a Teragen poser and she half throttled the interviewer live on air. Not one of my proudest moments, to be sure.

Narcosis was sweeter than ever. “Oh, come on, Chang, it’s been years since you talked to the public. Isn’t that what you’re all about? Isn’t that what we do in the Pandaimonion?”

“If I even am a part of it, yes,” Chang said, her voices harder now. “You know as well as I that the divisions are growing stronger, as your dear Lameea demonstrates.”

“Details, details,” Narcosis said, waving it off. “Mayhap you’ll split from me and end our arrangement but you won’t do it yet. For now you’re one of mine, and we’re all about making the baselines love us. Have you seen your popularity ratings?”

“No.” That was a lie of her own.

“Now who’s being childish? Of course you have. You barely make any public addresses, you never do interviews, you don’t go onto the OpNet, and you’re still sitting on seventy per cent approval. Dear, you’re barely trying. If you-“

“No,” Chang said, again. She could feel Narcosis pressing on her, now, attempting to make her cooperate. She resisted it, not with ease. The smile, the angle of her head, the words, they were all like a scalpel trying to cut into her mind and cut out the bits that disagreed.

She thought, dimly, of that room she had been led to when she was a girl, and the Chinese official who wanted to guide her future for the betterment of the people.

No,” Chang said, a final time, before Narcosis could go on. “I may be putty at times, but that is in bed under the hands of my lovers. My mind is mine and mine alone, and I have no need nor desire to share it with the baselines in any way other than through song, music and art. You know this. If a fan wishes to speak with me, that is one thing, but I have nothing to say to the great crush of humanity, and I have no reason to go before them. No.”

Narcosis offered a reserved, subtle smile. Little more than a twitch of one or two muscles around her mouth. “I’ll take it as a ‘maybe’, then.”

They said nothing else of consequence, falling instead into the practiced habits of polite courtesy friends always develop, talking about current and past projects, putting aside their disagreements and angers, blanketing them under layers of laughter and shared interest. Yet Chang felt exhausted by the end of it, like her brain was being tapped with a chisel, and growing thinner by the moment.

With friendship re-secured, Narcosis bid Chang good evening, kissed her once on each cheek, and bid her leave so she could get back to her business. She had several new sign-ups for Pantheon Productions, and the contract negotiations were getting thorny.

Chang headed out by the hotel doors a few minutes later, to the confusion of the staff who had never seen her enter.

Outside, a tall and busty woman was waiting on the side of the street. She had short dark hair, a network of tattoos on her face, and was wearing a simple jeans and shorts combination. “Hi, Chang,” she said.

“Lucrezia,” Chang replied, relief flooding through her. “How did you know?”

“Silly,” she said, tapping Chang on the lips. “I’m four people in there.” She shrugged. “It’s Narcosis’ place. All sorts of interesting things happen. Besides,” she said, leaning in closer to rub against Chang’s body, “I’m getting a sort of… feel for you. Something new, something borrowed. Maybe all that sex telepathy of yours is rubbing off on me. I don’t know yet,” she frowned for a second, then smiled. “Who cares? I’m here, and I knew you’d need me. You’re tense.”

Chang nodded.

Many people had stopped to watch, or take photos. No doubt some were wondering who this young woman was who was with her.

“Ride me,” Chang said, and her voice was desperate. Narcosis was a hard woman to resist, and would have been even if they were not friends.

Chang stepped out into the street, and bent over. Lucrezia followed her, rubbing her back. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ll ride you. All the way home.”

Chang felt sparks fly up her spine as Lucrezia touched her low on her back. And she flooded herself with quantum, and began to tease her body into the shape of a motorbike.

Her chest jutted out violently and then formed her front wheel, while the back wheel emerged from her belly and folded out. Her legs and arms and head began to form a fleshy chassis, while her body shifted into metal with a series of loud clicks and pops that changed slowly into metallic whines and scrapes. Her features became ornamentation just below the lights, and her eyes became those, mismatched colours like always, just for art’s sake.

Change completed, she rested, making small adjustments to the springs she had formed for the suspension, ensuring the rubber of her tires and steel of her body all felt right. Tired or no, she had standards to upkeep.

Lucrezia kicked her leg over and rubbed her crotch into the leather of Chang’s seat, grinning at everyone watching. She gripped the handlebars, and her grip was made of pleasure that set Chang’s motor running.

Chang felt her pedals hit, her engine gunned, and Lucrezia teased her out onto the road.


Lucrezia pulled them up outside the Rainbow Room and put down the kickstand. She slipped off Chang’s back, just as the doors opened and a half dozen girls came out of the Rainbow Room to meet them. All Lucrezia, every one. Chang could hear it in their step.

Even then, she rested for a time. She felt almost post-coital, her whole body afire with the gentle caresses of Lucrezia’s thighs and the more directed touches of the steering. Riding was a pleasure far more literal when she did it with her wife. We must do it more, she thought. I mistreat you sometimes, my heart.

“Come on, slugabed,” Lucrezia said, giving her a playful kick. “You’re a sexy bike but it won’t do to have a respectable Terat like you hanging around in the car park like some drunken zip.”

That stirred her. Chang’s body flowed up, contracting, creaking and groaning, metallic sounds turning to fleshy ones as her body assumed its human shape. She wrapped herself in jeans and shirt this time, one black the other white. She still felt a little lazy. Her black hair merged with the shirt at the shoulders, but enough still fell free down her back to bounce against her buttocks.

“Since when have I been respectable?” Chang asked, placing her hands upon her hips.

Lucrezia grabbed her arms and fell in behind, beside and in front of her, a walking crowd and escort of beauty and elegance. She all but frog-marched Chang into the Rainbow Room, made her do the rounds and hang around to be seen being fawned over by all these beauties, and only then took her to the back rooms and pushed her into the elevator which led down to the Crèche. All seven of them blew her a kiss as one. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. I’d come with, but… I’m not sure I’m ready to face her again. Not quite yet. She’s a bit intense.”

Chang nodded, leaning back against the back of the elevator as it descended, her mind afire with the pleasure of the journey, her senses alive and glutted with input.

That faded a little as she descended. Not enough. They would need to work on the sound-proofing more.

Narcosis wore me down hard. This could be… bracing.

Sakura awaited.

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"...a pool, or several, would be nice amenities, and would allow us to accommodate any novas with strong amphibious leanings." Sakura's voice was light and inviting as always, even from several floors beneath the hallway off the elevator several floors above her.

"We'd have to put them in the lowest levels or heavily reinforce several floors," Shiv countered.

"We're going to have that sort of reinforcement anyways," the pregnant nova snorted. "If I can break one of the walls, it's far too flimsy for a three year old nova throwing a temper tantrum."

Shiv huffed and shrugged, "Fair point."

"I'd also like as much control over the environment in each room as we can. Separate temperature controls, lights that can brighten and dim, with extra fixtures for different light spectrums, if that could be arranged." Chang could hear the smile in her new conspirator's voice. "Mind you, this is just a wish list. I know we have some practicalities to bow to. The priorities are what can make the creche as self-sufficient as possible: the gardens, the power generators, the air filters, and the sanitation systems."

"You make it sound like we're building a space ship." Chang could hear the scratch of pen on paper as the two conversed. She made her way down the openings in each of the cavernous floors, flowing down the walls and letting the patches of electrical wire and minute imperfections in the smoothness of the wall tickle along her skin. She was going to need quite a bit of 'quality' time with her wife and soon.

"If I had my way, it would only need to rockets to be so." Sakura's suddenly serious tone cut through Chang's momentary distraction. She pooled herself silently behind the two, reforming into her normal shape, her hair wrapping into a beautifully patterned dark blue bodysuit with purple orchids climbing on slender tendrils up one side.

"I see you two are hard at work. Have we got the basics covered yet?" She asked, her mismatched eyes watching Shiv more than Sakura. Sakura was distracting and she was curious how well Shiv was handling the lively young nova.

They both turned, Shiv nodding, "Mostly. This will not be an easy task, my Queen. Nor a quick one unless another dozen or so of those gems can be made and sold quickly."

"No," Sakura said with faint dissapointment, finishing the last of her notes on the pad of paper she was holding. "That would just flood the market and make them worthless. Once or twice every five years or so, yes, but even that's a little quick for large diamonds." She looked up at Chang, biting her lip as she thought, "I don't suppose you have anyone else that we could ask for support? I know you don't want the Storm King involved, but perhaps another wealthy nova? I was going to ask if we could let Jason know about the creche, just in case she and Danica ever needed somewhere truly safe to go. Perhaps we could ask her? From what I understand, she is quite wealthy."

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Jason. That name would have to come up now, with her like this.

Sakura’s presence was almost overwhelming. She had been busy since last seeing the Nova. Running around confirming Count Orzais’ travel arrangements, putting some finishing touches on things her wife had set in motion, then the meeting with Narcosis and the glorious ride back, Chang felt ragged.

Her body was all a-quiver, but the last person on planet earth she could allow to sense that was Shiv. Chang pulled it all inside, hardening her outer skin and letting her insides boil with the effort of trying not to take Sakura then and there and hard and forever.

Sure enough her shaft stiffened, but what of that? Shiv could and often did inspire that reaction, and she had no way of knowing how beautiful Sakura really was. Did being blind make her immune? She seemed to be handling Sakura’s presence very well. The test would likely be in attempting to separate them.

Jason. It felt so odd to use a man’s name when thinking of the most beautiful woman in the world.

Oh there were equals. There might even be one or two superior in some clinical fashion that Chang would readily admit to if she were to see them side by side. An artist’s eye was well-suited to picking out small differences, after all, and her eyes were among the sharpest in the world.

But it had been Jason who enflamed her back in the day, who helped her realize that she was a lesbian. Worse, she was a Nova lesbian claiming to be a Terat who was in the closet.

Looking back, the irony of that was sickening. Some rebel I was, she thought. Jason helped her get over that hump. I owe her more than she can ever know or understand. The Nova had remained boringly perfect over the intervening years. Not a tentacle in sight. That was sad, in a way. Chang would have loved to see Jason modelling with tentacles sprouting from her. It would have been a revelation. Ah, might-have-beens. What a poison they are.

“Jason,” she said, nodding. “Jason is rich. But also popular, and watched. If she is approached it must be done circumspectly, in absolute confidence. Find a place where nobody can overhear or spy on you, and be sure that they are not watching when you talk. I cannot stress enough the potential dangers of this endeavour. It must remain secret for as long as possible.”

Feeling weak-kneed, as the roiling inner flesh threatened to boil the surface skin, Chang backed off to a half-plastered wall and swelled her ass out into a simple, soft, yielding ball. She didn’t even bother to change it from flesh, just made the flesh softer and more yielding than flesh ought to be. She sighed, looking up at the roof, and turned to Sakura once again. Damn the woman. I can barely master my own flesh when she’s around. “As for other sources of support, Count Orzais is flying In to speak with me this very night. About what I do not know,” though after my meeting with Narcosis I certainly suspect, she thought, “but I see no reason why we cannot push our agenda at the same time as we listen to his. If Jason is wealthy, he is disgustingly wealthy. He is also one of my longest and staunchest allies. Without him I would most likely never have made it onto the Pantheon. He is a loyalist and a supporter of the Nursery, but I am fairly certain I can get money out of him without divulging too many details.”

“My queen,” Shiv said, “I’ll have to run the calculations by Meh’Lindi later, but I’m not even sure the Count can help us with this. Surely he will not give us enough to cover all of Sakura’s needs?”

That was a sticking point. One could only ask for so many zeroes before questions were required. “If we all pool our resources,” Chang said, “my people’s resources, then I know we can do this. You are not poor yourself, Shiv. The Alchemist is a multi-millionaire and is making us phantom money as we speak, and Meh’Lindi has a vast personal fortune as well. I trust you all implicitly, and I’m sure between us we can tease some money out of our other members and supporters.”

Shiv gave her strange, elegant but back-bent curtsy. “As you say, your grace.”

Chang began to run her mind through meditation exercises, to clear some of the chaos Sakura was causing in it. Without triggering her node, she ran through the mental processes of directing quantum, the processes that shaped her into the bike her wife so skilfully rode through the city, the ones that made her flesh so flexible she could slap a man from thirty miles away, and all the others. They were simple exercises, with a singular purpose: to ensure that knowledge of her body remained fresh in her mind, that she forgot nothing. It would help with control.

The meditation skill only actually helps with quantum recovery, but I’m flubbing it slightly in RP terms to explain the lack of bones-jumping

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Sakura frowned, knowing Chang was having difficulty being around her and having no idea what she could do to help. It was always so frustrating when this happened; she really liked Chang and she knew that she'd probably end up pushing her away just because it was so hard for the Mirror Queen to be near her. She also frowned because she wasn't sure what to do about the money they needed. She's always had some money; what little her parents had made from selling handmade items and acting as seasonal hunting guides for the city-dwellers that came up to mountains in the summer had been set aside in an account for her. She'd never really touched it, having no need for most things that baselines did, but they'd put it together so she'd be able to go to college or do whatever she wanted once she was all grown up so she'd kept it. It was their gift to her, and now she was putting it to good use here for the creche. But it wasn't enough. None of the money they had gathered so far was enough.

It's time to start learning more about how all this money stuff works, she sighed. She hoped Chang was right, that between all the people she could call favors in on they'd be able to come up with enough money to get the space made. "I can put the money from my contract for the Dead Rising movie into the project. It's no where near what the diamond got us, but it's that much more." She blinked, realizing that she hadn't actually mentioned that to Chang yet. "Oh! I'm going to be in a movie! It's a small part, Jason offered to let me come audition to get a chance to be out of the palace and around a lot of people and still be safe with all the security and media attention that the set and the movies get. I hadn't thought about that before....about hiding by being known, but Jason said that's how she's kept Danica safe..."

She chewed on her lip, trying to come up with more ways to either get more money or cut down on the costs. "Could...could the Alchemist make paint? I know it sounds silly, but with all the walls we're going to have, we'll spend a fortune just in paint. If the Alchemist could make it instead, that would be one way to save on money. And all I need are seeds to start the gardens going. Some of the deeper levels are tall enough that we could even have some smaller fruit trees and I can bring them all the way to maturity quickly, so we can start having food immediately. I can collect those on my own, if someone can get me to areas where they'd be, forests and such. If we put enough trees and few algae ponds in place, that will take care of a lot of the air needs, so we won't need as many filtration systems. Hmn...what else?" She tapped her pen on the paper, thinking.

"We can't use just timber for construction; it's too flimsy, but again, I can grow any type of tree we want so we would only have to pay for the cutting and construction of any wood we did want to use. If we wanted to pay enough to dig down to the aquifer, we'd have out own water supply. These are just ideas I'm throwing out, I don't know how practical or helpful they'd be...." She frowned and hesitated. "There is another idea, though it feels a little...wrong....to use people that way. I can...alter baselines. Not just heal them of injuries like most nova healers. I can make them different. I can give someone that has a genetic condition that prevents them from growing legs a perfectly fine pair, or give a baseline gills or other animal features. I can make them more beautiful or give them a better body; take someone obese and give them a thin, athletic body with a high metabolism." She swallowed and hesitated again, always having had an unresolved internal debate over this, "I can even make them younger. And...well...I've never done such things for money. I've only done the last twice, with grandparents that needed to be able to take care of their orphaned grandchildren or the babies wouldn't have had anyone to care for them and would have died. I don't like the idea of charging people for...for all of that, but maybe, if there were people that wouldn't miss the money, and it would make us enough to build this and set aside money to make sure we always had enough to support this creche and make others...then...maybe that would be a reason enough for it."

She glanced between the two of them, nervous about what she'd revealed and suggested, but this was important to her; neither of the other two novas could doubt her full commitment to making this creche, and others as she'd said, into realities.

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Chang stirred at Sakura’s little revelation. She turned over a little, wriggling into her pliant, swollen flesh and sighing a little at the sensations which blossomed through her body. “Run that last one by me again, would you?”

Sakura did, still looking nervous.

When she was done, Chang nodded. “Open an OpNet store, perhaps,” she mused. “Call it The Body Shop – simple title, effective, gets the point across – it’ll sell itself. I can see a lot of rich heiresses and the like wanting to have a little youth and beauty back. Just the same as those movie stars who keep paying Sin-Eater to remove their aberrations,” she nodded. “Yes, it’ll work. And raise a ton of capital.”

Shiv moved to one side, silent as a shadow, and rested the back of her head against the wall. I think she’s feeling the strain, too, Chang thought. I owe her a reward of some sort. She’s making me look terrible in comparison.

Indeed, but for this subtle sign, Shiv seemed to have remained the picture of composure. But then her hormones were balanced, unlike Chang, who had been of a lusty temperament for decades.

“As for Jason’s advice,” Chang said, pausing to think over her next words. Jason was an easy woman to listen to. “I’d like you to ask Slider or Knockout just how well being a public face protects you. Jason is a lovely woman, but she was naïve then and from the sound of things she’s naïve now. Harsh words, I fear, but you need to hear them. Jason’s kept Danica safe by being very close to invincible, and surviving a concerted attempt to kill her. Every other month you hear about public Novas getting murdered, children and all. Scan the OpNet if you don’t believe me. Jason has never been a big picture thinker. Please, Sakura, don’t trust her on a matter like this.”

She pushed herself back up to sitting, and gave a heavy sigh. “Look, Jason is one Nova, with one daughter. You are a breeder Nova, carrying triplets, who can freely allow other Novas to breed. We are talking completely different scales of being and – in their eyes – problem. They’ll come for you, Sakura, just as they did before. Do you really think it’ll be that hard to arrange a fatal accident on a movie set?” Chang favoured her with a sad, bitter smile. “It’s happened before, Sakura. I’m not saying don’t do the movie. By all means, have fun. But do not let your guard down. Not for one instant. You’re too important, and that is exactly the reason why they’ll come for you. Jason…” Chang shrugged. “She’s no more relevant than I am, not in this matter. Proteus don’t have the resources they once did, they can’t go for a second attack on such a difficult target. It’s even possible Jason’s simply too powerful for them to kill. Me? I could be killed with a well-placed bullet. Jason? You couldn’t kill her with a tactical ICBM strike. Please, take a moment, and think through the conversation they would have to have before planning a hit on her. I think that should tell you the real thing that's kept her daughter safe all these years.”

I doubt she’ll listen to me. Not about Jason. Jason Bellefleur had always been bothersome in that regard. People listened when she spoke, but it had far more to do with her bust size than the wisdom of her words. “That said… you could certainly do worse than stick close to Jason twenty four seven.” She considered, cupping her chin. “Hmm, actually that makes good sense. Make a short list of people who can protect you, and keep close to one of them when you’re out and about. It’s a practicable solution that doesn't force you to live underground like some sort of exceptionally pretty mole man.”

She had not forgotten about Sakura’s question concerning The Alchemist, but this issue of her personal safety seemed far more pressing right now. This entire endeavour would come to naught if she got herself killed.

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The young woman paled under the onslaught of Chang's warnings and nodded solemnly at the Mirror Queen's instruction to keep by someone powerful and safe. That's what she'd been doing anyways. She wasn't going to let herself be an easy target, but she also wasn't going to curl up and lock herself in her rooms in Kinshasa now. If she did that, she'd never let herself or her children out again as the fear became something permanent in her. "I will," she said softly, her hand on her belly. "Keep people close, I mean. Not turn into a mole man."

She tried to quirk a smile at that, since Chang knew the interesting truth about her sex, but it was tainted with too much worry and sadness to be more than a pale imitation. "I'd still like to talk to Jason, about have a place for her and Danica to go if they needed." She held up her hands in a placating manner, "I know what you just said, but what happens when Danica gets old enough to start having children of her own, and the world sees that it's not just one fluke or one generation of flukes? That we're truly a race? I trust her, Chang. She won't tell anyone else without asking us, and then we can decide on the other person ourselves." She sighed, "Look, why don't we both go talk to her? You're better at...talking around things, and you can feel her out without giving things away. I'll follow your lead if you really think we shouldn't tell her, after that."

"....and, can someone show me how to set up this shop? I don't know much about dealing with the OpNet or setting up a business, but I want to learn. It'll be important." Chang knew that Sakura wasn't dumb, and could be incredibly insightful at times, but she was also still young and her earnest, hopeful requests were so innocent in comparison to the novas Chang spent so much of her life with.

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Chang nodded, pressing her fingers together. It was becoming easier to deal with Sakura now that she was being asked questions, having to think fast and hard.

“Of those I trust most, The Alchemist is the most business savvy. She was part of the Pandaimonion before I came, and joined me later. That experience has been very helpful as she’s… changed. You’ll meet her sometime tonight. I’ve asked her to pop down when Orzais arrives. Oh, as to your earlier question, maybe. Currently I have her producing a unique alloy she’s created to be used in strengthening the walls. That’s the real money saver. Advanced metals cost a ton, are extremely hard to source, and would almost certainly have revealed us,” she said. “I’m going to have to reward her appropriately for her hard work. I’m not sure I’ve ever abused someone’s node as much as I’m set to abuse hers during this little venture. One complication is that she has contracts to fulfil for Pantheon Productions, and her wares are in extremely high demand.”

Shiv chuckled. “It’s surprising how many of us miss being able to get drunk. She’s the only Nova in the world who can let them do it.”

Chang nodded. “I agree. But ostensibly yes, she could produce paint as well. I haven’t painted with normal paint for over a year, I only ever use her produce. If you want some advice, speak to her. She’s very friendly.”

“At the moment, at least,” Shiv said. “I should point out, your grace, that she said she’s been feeling ‘droopy’.”

Chang made a face. “She has extremely violent mood swings,” she said by way of explanation. “Deep fits of depression. We could do without one of those, that’s for sure. I hope she doesn’t kill herself again,” Chang said, and shook her head. We had to scrape bits of her off the roof last time. Andy had been extremely displeased with that.

“As for Danica… you forget that the baselines have already deemed us human. They won’t see us as another race because they’ve decided we’re not. They’ll see that some extraordinarily rare novas are able to breed and view it as a miracle. That’s how they view it. Only when all Novas can freely breed will their perceptions change. I’m afraid we’re a long way away from that. This is exactly why Proteus can leave Jason alone. One Nova, one child, changes nothing.

“But yes, I agree Jason is worth a shot. By all means, we shall speak with her.” Yet when she said it, her face gained a distant, clouded look. “Yes we shall.”

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Sakura nodded and the three made a few more arrangements and ideas for the creche before taking a break. The lithe young mother-to-be sent an OpMail to the account Jason had given her, asking if she and Chang could come visit for a chat, preferably on that island home she had mentioned. Messages passed back and forth over the next few hours as Bombshell fit replies in between casting calls and other duties around the studio. A time was agreed on and Chang and Sakura were waiting in the Rainbow Room proper when the silver-haired beauty blinked onto the platform.

Sakura smiled at their new guest and let Chang lead them off to one of the more opulent and incredibly secure private rooms in the club. As everyone seated themselves, Sakura played her pleasant role as hostess/server and poured drinks for the three of them, then took her own seat. "Thanks for meeting with us, Jason. I know how busy everything is right now with Dead Rising."

She glanced at Chang, subtly letting the Terat take over the conversation. That was what they'd agreed, so she'd be patient and follow the Mirror Queen's lead.

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Jason had known Sakura was spending time with Chang for some reason, but hadn't made any effort to discover what for. if Sakura wanted her to know, she'd mention it - they had been spending enough time together on set, and had gotten friendly. So when she called asking to meet her and Chang at the Rainbow Room, she was intrigued and readily agreed.

Her scenes were done for the day. The Paradise scene had been an intense one, action filled, but emotional too, with the appearance of Kristin. Andrei still took some coaxing, but had played the part well. She smiled wryly. He had wanted to play Ares, and though he had the muscles for it, he was rather too short and fresh-faced for it and they had found someone more suitable. He had been the one to reluctantly reveal he could alter his gender at will, and as a woman, Andrei made a perfect Kristin, looks-wise anyway, and his irritation at playing a girl helped him with portraying the ferocious, traumatized character. Once, she might have envied him being able to switch back and forth, but she had long ago made peace with being a woman. Having a cock again, if only for a while, might be nice though...

Jason headed back to her trailer, swelling back to her full height and proportions and changed. Her clothes morphed, slithering up her back, and forming into a simple, gleaming gold hair-clip pinning back her silver hair into a luxurious pony-tail. She slipped on a pair of worn, black jeans, a snug, white shirt splattered with crimson that hung off the shoulders. 'Zombies Wish These Were Brains' was written across the front, somewhat distorted by the voluptuous landscape. Comfortable, lace-less cross-trainers and her fine chain and wedding rings completed the outfit. It was a social call, but a casual one.

A visit with her daughter and a promising to be back soon, then she was off the Rainbow Room with another step. For so long, she and Chang had been on the periphery of each other, then just a little while ago, there had been The Dance in the Rainbow Room, and now, she was meeting Chang once more, in the Rainbow Room no less.

Jason sat down, apparently at ease, taking a sip of the drink then raising her cup to Sakura in thanks and smiling. "It's not a problem, Sakura. I've done enough movies by now - I know how to manage my time and I always have time for friends." She arched a brow at the way Sakura let Chang take the lead, but made no other acknowledgment of it, instead taking another sip of her drink, then setting on a side table and crossed her legs. "And I would be lying if I said I wasn't interested in why you've called on me. What's up?"

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It felt good – to say the least – to have Jason rubbing her buttocks into her body. She had shaped a trio of sofas for the three of them. They were all sensual in their own ways and to various degrees, it was perfectly conceivable that one or more of them might want to lie down during their talk.

But what to talk about?

There were many things. Her mind went back to their chance meeting in the Rainbow Room last month, and so many old feelings stirred in Chang’s heart.

Looking on Jason, so close, so near, it was hard not to be overcome. Her shaft responded immediately, swelling and stiffening, growing thick as Jason’s body. It hid her breasts from view, pressing up against her collarbone and obscenely warping her clothes. Chang made no sound or motion to credit or respond to it, though. She simply raised her goblet-hand to her mouth and sipped some wine.

Chang had lusted over Jason from afar, like so many others, but their brief encounter had elevated Jason above a mere object of desire. Their contact helped Chang to being the personal transformation that guided her back to the Teragen, and from there to all that brought her to this place, at this time.

That desire was tempered slightly by a small disappointment. Even after all this years, Jason remained unchanged. In a way that saddened her. Jason would never experience the wonders of chrysalis, never truly grow. All this time, and she seemed exactly the same as before, just a bit older with a daughter. In fact, she felt even more the same as before. That was a peculiar sensation.

No, nothing’s changed… yet something feels new. What is that, I wonder? She pondered. What on earth do we talk about?

Sakura knew nothing of this unspoken history. Maybe it was best to forget it. She had followed Sakura’s lead in coming to this point, but now she needed to take control. That was awkward.

“In a rather bizarre twist, we’re curious about money matters. Sakura’s been running around the world avoiding the motherhunters, but she’s never really settled down and tried to find a use for her powers, nor does she have much of an understanding of money. We’ve come up with a scheme to change that. I thought it might be a good practical example for her if you were to tell us what you do with that vast fortune of yours. You’re better suited for this than I; I’m too busy donating my money to baseline charities to really build up a money base. These days I rely more on the cash of my students than my own, if I’m in a bind.”

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Jason took in the sight of Chang's massive manhood with a surprising equanimity. She could... feel the otherness of the other woman, even more intense than before. She couldn't deny that there was a certain effectiveness to Teras, but the willingness to abuse their nodes and cast aside their connection with humanity touched her with melancholy.

Chang had traveled further than nearly anyone she knew, but what was the point when you left everyone and the world behind, could barely relate to it any more, and they could not relate to you?

She kept her thoughts to herself, only a flexing of her firm backside on Chang's sofa-self hinting that there was anything more to curious quirk of her full lips. Jason hadn't been expecting a call about finances and saw no need to conceal her surprise. She would have thought Chang had more than easy access to such advice and Sakura could have asked her anytime. Her suspicions peaked - there was obviously more to this and she was being sounded out, though she gave little indication of it.

Jason took a sip of her drink, then gestured gracefully, an encompassing motion. "Well... not exactly what I was expecting. I do a variety of things with the wealth I have been fortunate enough to accrue. Take care of what little family I have left and help friends when they are in a bind. I do give to some charities, though I am hardly as generous as your are, Chang. I prefer to donate my time, if possible, and give directly to the source rather through charities. I know better how the money is spent and well, if you keep giving money away, people keep expecting you to give it away, eh?"

She took another sip of her drink, finishing it and set it aside, leaning back on the sofa, spreading her arms along the top. There was no reason to get into all the details, and all in all, she preferred keeping her portfolios low-key. "I have a large variety of investments, both for fiscal responsibility and to promote innovations I find useful, inspiring, or just plain interesting or fun. Sometimes it doesn't pan out, most of the time, it does. I sponsor a number of civic and art programs - mostly in cinema or show-business, but there are others."

The striking woman sighed, raising a hand and propping her delicate chin on her knuckles. "To be honest, I have become wealthier than I ever imagined I would or could be - It has been a long road from once dreaming of playing in the NHL. I've picked up some hobbies and interests..." She chuckled mellifluously and with a tinge or wistfulness. "Thanks to Danielle, I now have a rather extensive comic book and graphic novel collection." She giggled again, this time with a note of self-deprecation. "And I have many... generous fans and admirers, sometimes too generous. As beautiful as it is, I hardly needed a castle on the Irish coastline. Admittedly, Danica quite enjoys it."

Jason shook her head wonderingly, remember some of the other sweet, extravagant, or just plain odd gifts she had been given over her lifetime as a nova and woman, but quickly sobered. Her stunning indigo eyes narrowed slightly with shrewdness. Though it was easy to forget - and in some circles, she still had a reputation as somewhat of a bimbo - Jason wasn't a dumb woman.

"Suffice it to say, I have more than I can spend... or at least, am willing to waste on any fancy that catches my eye. But I have the time to figure out what I wish to use it for, right? If you wish, I can suggest some very competent and scrupulous accountants and financial consultants. They would be much better at advising you and are better acquainted with the laws surrounding the economics and enterprise of quantum capabilities. I have skills and..." Jason sat up, briefly striking a captivating pose before relaxing once me, "... such that are in demand, but no real powers that are highly sought after. Not like Sakura here, or many others."

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We have a worthy cause for you to spend it on, Chang thought, but the words never came close to her lips. Can I take the risk? A venture became more dangerous the more people involved. She had been uncertain about involving even her inner circle, but she and Sakura alone lacked the resources, and they needed help to keep it secret from Andy.

She suspected she might be ejected from the Rainbow Room when he eventually did find out. Rather than build the crèche on-site they had undermined the Rainbow Room from Meh’Lindi’s Bowls and Grill. Nearby and visited often enough to make usage of the crèche easy to hide. Most likely, though, Chang would use Gateway to move families to and from the facility, or some other, less… impressive, transporter.

And you have a trusting nature, too. How wise have the years made you, I wonder? The advice she had given to Sakura was close to a death warrant for the girl. But that was a different sort of situation. In her favour, Jason seemed wary, not apprehensive, but suspicious.

To give her more time to think, she said, “I do not know if you are fully aware of Sakura’s abilities or not, but regardless she is hoping to set up a business in order to offer her services to the world at large. I do not quite approve of this but it is her decision as are all things. The issue is how to safety market those abilities, how can Sakura keep her and her children safe without the protections you yourself possess. I do not think any of us require a shortlist of individuals and organizations that may take some… offense, to this venture we’re proposing.”

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Jason tilted her head slightly as she regarded Sakura, a faint frown creasing her eminently kissable lips. "I know some, from your own words and from observations I've made, some I can guess at, but evidently, I hardly know everything." Though I learned more when Ein and I checked on the situation after you sought Sanctuary in the Congo.

"I do know a fair number of celebrities and other wealthy individuals. There are some who provide some of the services I believe you can provide, though I know of none who can provide the whole panoply of them. For the most part, their business is conducted very confidentially, though I'll admit Dr. Julian Evans is being pretty obvious with his 'cosmetic surgery' practice. Lindsay Lohan adding more than half a foot of height, at least three cups sizes, that much muscle, and losing the appearance of fifteen years after a four month 'extensive body remodeling regimen' was kind of a give-away."

Jason snorted. Lindsay Lohan had been besotted with her for years. She didn't know why she thought just because she now had tits every bit as big as her own, she'd overlook the fact Lindsay was an egotistical, vain, self-centered, and possibly unbalanced woman. "She'd be better served learning to actually act."

Jason shifted on the sofa, curling her legs under her and leaned on the arm, her indigo eyes tinged with regret. "The way most of these businesses work is through confidential word of mouth. Clients generally don't want it to be known they have availed themselves of such services and want the plausible deniability. An OpNet footprint offers another line of inquiry and is pretty much permanent, so often avoided. As well, the more public such services become, the more people who can't afford them will clamor for them, seeing it as just another way the rich hold themselves above the other ninety-nine, point nine-nine percent. That could result in a lot of negative push-back from the vast majority of the population. I would think, if you wanted to start such a business, you need an in, or a new niche, to cut in."

She reached over and sadly patted Sakura on the knee. "And this isn't even considering your talent of restoring fertility. I'm not saying how you should live or raise your children. To some," Jason nodded at Chang, agreeing they didn't need to be named, "that paints you into far more of a target that I ever could be. I don't think my method of... public shielding will work as well for you, Sakura. At least not until fertile and breeding novas become a far more common and public occurrence."

A hard, determined light brightened Jason's indigo eyes. Novas known at large to be fertile and with offspring were a minuscule number, but she knew, and suspected both them knew that the real number, while still small, was much higher than the world was lead to believe. If they were all public, there were almost no way for the motherhunters could operate without it swiftly becoming obvious what they were attempting. Most of the world would condemn them, and their operations would become far more difficult to accomplish. Only, she fully understood the ones who hid, having suffered her own terrible loss.

"I see several options available to you, Sakura," Jason said, counting the points on her fingers, her expression sympathetic. "Fortify, like you've done in Kinshasa. Constantly be on the move, like you were before. Keep to remote places or similarly, hide, or at least hide your full capabilities, though in your case, it might be too late. Or, risk being public and be always vigilant and on your guard." A patina of melancholy skated across her face and she turned her head. The other two women had the uncanny sense she was looking straight in direction of her daughter, wherever she might be. "Even for me, it hasn't always been easy."

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"Running didn't work," she swallowed, pushing back the memories of that awful month, "or I'd never have ended up in Kinshasa."

"Some...some of what I can do is just...it's not necessary. I can give normal humans things like gills or fur or wings. Vanity stuff, for fun. I mean, most of what I can do, it can really help people, but I..."She sighed in frustration, "I don't like the idea of charging for that sort of thing. I...it doesn't cost me anything to help those that need that sort of help....it's just, I see what money can do, how it can reach beyond the immediacies of my skills, fertility or otherwise, so making money is important, too."

There were subtle inflections on her words, just the right emphasis here or emotion there to convey in a subtle manner what they were really talking about for the use of the money. She watched Jason with soulful eyes, asking, "If you couldn't hid behind your fame, if you weren't strong and fast and...and couldn't or wouldn't hurt those that came after you and Danica, what would you do? I don't want to have to spend the next twenty years living on the kindness of the Storm King, but you're right, I'm not you. I can't do all the things you've done to keep Danica safe and being know for everything I can do will just make me a greater target. I understand that. I'm just....I'm trying to figure out what to do, for myself and for the other novas that I help or that are like me."

There. No mention of the creche or plans already in motion, but the point was out in the open. She didn't know if Chang would be upset with her little outburst, but the conversation wasn't going anywhere real useful up to this point, and they had only so much time they could tease out of Jason's schedule without becoming an imposition.

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In a fluid blur, Jason sat up, crossing her legs and folding her arms beneath the enticing swell of her bosom. Her fine, dark brows lowered over her bright eyes, still filled with understanding and compassion, but there was a firm resoluteness to them as well. What ifs were a path leading endless regrets. If only I'd been faster, more ruthless, Danielle might be still... Perfect lips tightened as she dispelled the thought.

"As you say, Sakura, you are not me. Nor am I you. I am strong and fast and tough enough to protect my daughter, if not save my wife. Conversely, I can't do most of the things you do, heal with a touch, transform people, and more." She held up a staying hand. "And I have no issues with you from profiting from them. How can I?" Jason gave an exaggerated shrug, her abundant breasts rising high, then falling, jiggling temptingly. "I've done the same. I was just trying to explain any problems that could occur so you were aware of them."

She gave Sakura a tight, fierce smile. "I would also suggest you don't make a claim of what you can't or won't do in the defense of your children until you've held them in your arms and they've been threatened in front of you. It's frightening what you can find yourself capable of, you might even regret it, but you'll do it anyway." Jason sighed, relaxing back against the Chang-couch. "I don't know what option is best for you, Sakura, only you can decide that. I just know which I have chosen and lived with, for better or not."

They had hardly asked to talk to them about economics - for a Nova, earning wealth was child's play, though the levels she had reached took either time or for more effort and cunning than most novas could boast. But money was an issue somehow, and she well understood a mother's worry, and though Sakura was a woman, she was still relatively young, with little in the way of family, if any, from what she had seen. "Which ever you decide, Sakura, I'll do what I can to help you protect your children, either through influence or monetary resources, I give you my word. I understand not wanting to be bound to just a small portion, a tiny fraction of the world, when you want to give your children freedom."

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Jason’s words opened up an… option. If she would help Sakura protect her children monetarily, they might be able to get her financial support without ever explaining what was going on.

Chang felt almost dirty thinking about it. Jason was Jason. Bombshell, the world’s most beautiful woman at least until a bunch of upstart children decided to get in on the action, but she had the pedigree they lacked, the public awareness and the experience. That made all the difference on the world stage.

She radiated desire and beauty and joy in waves that were tantalizing, and tempting.

But Chang knew the lie behind them. Jason made everyone who looked upon her think they could have her, and she willingly played the tease to those desires. She never intended to provide an ounce of the feelings she inspired, never offered respite to the lusts her coming provoked. Chang once wrote a song to teach her that, but it seemed to have changed nothing. She was the same old Jason, doing the same old things, just magnified by power. Her intrinsic lie was the same, too, and that was also magnified a hundred times over.

I do not know if I can trust her, Chang thought, bitterly, wondering when she had become so paranoid. In the old days she would have told her everything and been glad to. Back then, she yearned for people to share her secrets with. Not that it would have been worth it. They were too different, in the end. And if I do not know… then I cannot.

“That certainly would be of assistance, Chang said. Monetary resources, as you put it, are what Sakura needs right now, and a fairly large chunk of them. If she’s going to make a place for her children to be safe, and I mean safe for anything longer than five minutes, she will need to carve out a place for herself in the bedrock of the world. You said yourself it’s been hard protecting Danica, and Sakura carries triplets. Since she does not want to hide in the Congo – a motion I approve of – she must needs seek another place of security. I’m putting some of my own limited resources into sounding out possible locations for her perusal and selection and cajoling a few of my peers to assist as well. What might you offer on this front?”

Chang emptied her goblet-hand of wine and then refilled it. She had steered clear of lying so far. Long experience had shown her she was poor at it. But putting the truth in a somewhat more innocent and vaguer light was an altogether more comfortable affair. “I don’t know about you, but I feel Sakura’s security is of paramount importance right now. There are after all, very few Novas who can help others with their fertility, and one of them is a Terat who by definition is not an option for many Novas in the world.”

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And it seems the Teragen is angling for another, Jason thought even as her fine brows furrowed in self-recrimination. That was a truly unworthy thought, Jase. Still, her gaze went flat, luminous eyes dimming in disappointment. There was something more to this meeting, she could feel it, but all they would admit to was money. If Sakura needed help, she could have asked any time during their interactions in Kinshasa or on the set; they could have always managed a moment of privacy for a sensitive issue. When she heard Chang was involved, she had been hoping for something... more.

When they kept missing each other despite the intersection of their respective careers, she had thought Chang preferred it that way and so didn't press the issue. She couldn't fully express her appreciation for 'When Yanluo Falls.' Chang was an eminent artist, and she had taken some steps as an artist in part because of her. If Jason was acknowledged as a very fine artist in her own right - mostly as a song, musical score, and screenplay write, she still knew she was a far step behind Chang and ever would be. She considered herself more of a performer, than artist.

And before 'Angel of Harmony and Despair,' she had been so young, immature, a boy playing with a beautiful woman instead of a boy who was a beautiful woman. Its words, and her experiences with Lady Envy, and seeing the look in the eyes of the dying during the Crush and the Congo as they gazed up at her had opened her eyes to the flip side of her peerless presence.

She hadn't ignored the lesson going on with her life. She couldn't dim her staggering beauty, which only grew brighter over time, and indeed, learned to embrace it, but took pains to project the effect she wished, to overwhelm or not as she chose. Unlike many of the beautiful who suffered - or embraced - Quantum Backlash Syndrome, she held all the facets of her presence in her grasp. She thought about Sakura, and another friend who had become a recluse due to the physiologically addictive nature of beauty, and others who left trails of brokenhearts from no more than a wink or smile. Her appearance and presence could hardly not affect those around her, but she strove to make sure it wasn't an unpleasant one, especially when she left.

When she performed or posed, she tried, for a little while, to give them a moment of possessing her, or immersing them in the scene and the emotions and sensations it was meant to portray, and she hoped, in most cases, succeeded. The vase majority understood what she gave, what she represented, and were satisfied by the entertainment, knew the illusion for what it was and thanked her for it. If there were those who sought more or believed she offered more, well... celebrities had always been the target of obsession, and that was without taint muddying up the issue.

Considering she was a member of the Pandaimonium herself, Jason wondered if Chang had ever brought up the lesson of 'Angel of Harmony and Despair' to Pantheon Productions' slew of stars and starlets, because if any needed it, it was they.

And it only came down to money; whatever else it might be, both Sakura and Chang were being coy about it. As they will. She'd helped as she'd said she would, but not blindly. She gave Chang and Sakura a shrug.

"What do you need? I don't know what you've already accomplished and I don't sign over checks without knowing what they are going to be used for, not anymore." She frowned sadly. "I was trustingly generous once, and another paid with his life for it. I'm responsible for what is done with the money I give away. I have friends and contacts all over the world, if there is something specific you need, one of them is bound to have it or know how to procure it. I know several elites, trustworthy folk and good with kids who I can put on retainer to protect you and the children. There is too much I don't know to be able to know how I can best help, beyond just being a purse."

Her eyes turned to focus solely on Sakura with concerned speculation. "I understand even a gilded cage must chafe, but as far as I can see, it just seems like you're exchanging one for another. If you simply want more space to move freely and safely, that I understand. What I wish to know is: are you wanting to build a fortress or have you found some way to prevent your hunters from tracking you? If so, that opens up far more options for you."

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"I still haven't done that, though I'm hoping that the movie exposure and what I'm trying to put together now will be enough between the two of them." She sighed, trying thread her way between the promise she made to Chang and the knowledge Jason needed before she would help. "I guess I am sort of wanting to build a fortress. Somewhere safe, like the palace, but that's...more my own. Not as public....or with so many non-novas around. Not that I mind being around normal humans, it's just that nova children can hurt people, especially physically, without realizing what they're doing. I got mad at my Dad when I was twelve and nearly killed him with a bolt of lightening from the sky. I didn't even know I could do that, and certainly hadn't meant to put him the hospital with second degree burns down his side. The palace....I know they're used to having novas living there, but not uncontrolled infants."

She glanced over at Chang, then back to Jason. "Chang is helping with this. I...I don't know a lot about dealing with the world. I mean, give me a forest and I'm fine, but constructing something? Building permits? Money to buy land? It gets....tangled and I get frustrated and then nothing gets done. So Chang offered to help, but I still don't have enough money to do what I want, to make the home I want how want, to feel safe without feeling like I've locked myself in some prison."

"I'd like to have a home that I feel safe in and somewhere that I can help people from. Which also means I want two safe locations, and that gets even more complicated and expensive...." Her brow furrowed, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to dump all this on you and seem...I don't know...greedy or something. I just...you're one of the people I trust, one of my friends. I don't have many of those...so when I hit the point that I could do any more, couldn't even finish the plans I had in my head because I knew I couldn't afford them, I thought I'd ask you. For advice, for help."

Nothing she had said was a lie - not outright, but she knew she was skirting the very edges of the truth and that made her unhappy. Chang didn't want to tell her about the creche, not the true nature and scope of it, and she'd promised she'd follow her more experienced friend's lead. But it chaffed and made her unhappy. Things were so complicated.

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Jason sighed, her eyes softening, and stood up, glided over to Sakura, giving her a one-armed hug as she joined her on the sofa. She knew the anxiety of being single mother. Even with friends and acquaintances all across the world, CEOs and Heads of State, celebrities and elites, millions, billions of fans and admirers, in some ways, she had still felt alone without Danielle. Friends had helped her out at that time and she'd help Sakura now - she understood.

"I'm glad you did, Sakura, honest," Jason said, giving her another hug. If she still had a niggling feeling something was hinky, Sakura's appeal was still a true one and she'd always help a friend until she learned that friendship was being abused. Please don't abuse it... Jason leaned back, crossing her legs, a keen interest in her eyes as her gaze flicked back and forth between Sakura and Chang. "So, what are these plans you have in your head? Let's see if they can make them a reality and keep your children safe."

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There were tiny cracks in Sakura’s innocent and honest image. Chang had seen hints of them even on that first day at the palace, when Sakura had done a swift about-face and asked what the Teragen could really do for her that Einherjar could not.

She was no shrinking violet or perfect innocent, running from saviour to saviour. There was a steel trap mind behind those green eyes, and she possessed a wellspring of cunning.

What had likewise become clear was that Sakura hated to draw from that well. Yet she could, and would. Listening to her speak to Jason reminded her a little of her wife, tugging on all the right heartstrings to make the brain switch off and the heart swell up.

Chang could see that she had unwittingly put Sakura between two friends. That she trusted Jason was undoubted, but she seemed to bow to Chang’s experience over Jason’s. I wonder why? Perhaps it was because it had not been Jason who came to Sakura with big ideas and a plan to accomplish them. Perhaps we operate on a primacy of concept, she thought. The plan was – initially – mine, and so she is willing to bow to me on these matters.

Or perhaps, hard as it was to believe, she genuinely trusted her. Not that Chang viewed herself as untrustworthy, but really, who trusted the average Terat in these cynical times? And she sat upon the Pantheon, could call Geryon on a whim, and knew exactly what crimes the Primacy had accomplished last week. Well, last month, at least.

There was something heartening about that.

Still, she could feel Sakura’s desire to break down all the details, to tell Jason everything. She was careful in indicating this, not throwing looks that anyone could see, but rather making subtle shifts in posture and tensing her muscles just so, relying on the fact she reclined on Chang’s body to let the signal pass to her.

It did. Sakura lacked Lucrezia’s developed sense of touch or the veritable private language the two of them had created for times when truly secret messages needed to be passed in plain view, but nonetheless the message was clear.

Trust her, Sakura was saying. Please.

Chang rippled the surface of the sofa against Sakura’s body, a little more firmly than would be comfortable, enough to indicate her feelings on the matter. No. Sakura would be cross about this. But she would listen.

Without speaking, she poured more wine for herself. Jason had grown more suspicious every time Chang opened her mouth, and all but dropped her guard on the floor when Sakura spoke. She hoped that now she could do the rest more or less alone. Once everything was set up, then Jason could be told quite happily. But not yet.

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"I want a place that is hidden....which means I'm either looking at using a building that seems to be something else, or doing something like building underground. Either way, it's expensive because the place has to be strong enough to handle nova children. And I want to be large enough that if we have to stay there for a long time, we don't go stir-crazy after just a day or two." She bit her lip and thought, her eyes far away, "And so we could have visitors and friends stay over. But it also would need a way in and out that's not obvious."

She sighed, "And that's pretty much true for the clinic and the house. The size, I mean. Security is a good idea, but I don't think the clinic needs as much as I want for my ch- for the house. Some people I help are going to need physical therapy to learn how to use limbs that they've never had or that have never worked or whatever." She leaned forward and put her elbow on the table and then her chin in her hand. "That's it, mostly. After what happened before I got to the Congo, I want every precaution and protection I can have on where my children grow up. That ends up being a lot of size and a lot of specialized or just plain expensive construction and equipment. And setting up the clinic means finding a still secure place, if not a fortress, that's discreet and large enough for the needs of the clientele. Luckily I won't need a ton of equipment there, just the stuff for any rehab or new training. Pretty much a nice gym set-up, I guess."

She paused and then looked up at Jason, "You know, we could use the clinic for the Hera's Revenge people we talked about. And for others that want to be a different gender. It could take some pressure off of the foundation you mentioned, though it would probably mean we'd need some sort of therapist or psychologist at the clinic for them."

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Jason nodded contemplatively, one foot bouncing lighting, a round, firm thigh flexing attractively, a finger tapping the arm of the couch in time with the points Sakura was making. In her head, she was pulling up lists of who she could call upon or persuade, what is cost for her to build some of her homes and what funds she had at hand and which she could easily get a hold of.

Black Irish might be able to help and he likes the tykes. Greensteel Inc. has been doing great things with their eco-friendly mining up in the Canadian north, extremely good safety record with their patented shoring system... The gym/rehab center is easy... Living underground wouldn't be my preference, but I can certainly see how it could appeal and help with security... though it does lead to the risk of limiting your movement as well...

"That could work quite well indeed. For those wanting to transition, they are currently using a tailored version of the HR Virus, followed by a treatment of antibiotics to clear it from the system, but it isn't perfect - some are naturally immune, others have bad reactions, and the like." Jason inclined her head at Sakura, giving her idea its due. The Tiresias Foundation was a dear cause of hers. "I'm sure the Tiresias Foundation could provide some aid in establishing the clinic, especially in return for all the help you could provide them. And they have a number of therapists and psychologists with lots of experience in this field - and others, for that matter - on staff." Jason's lovely eyes grew heavy in recollection and her lips quirked into a small, wistful smile. "I'll give Jordan Johansson a call. She has a private practice, but works with them on a pro bono basis. An amazing therapist, an amazing person."

Jason dismissed the thought of a former lover, her eyes flicking between Sakura and Chang. "Have you guys considered locations yet? Not just country, but whether setting this up in an urban, suburban, or rural-slash-remote area? It will affect construction - even using Nova warpers, people will ask where materials are going, purely because it seems like a secret. It will also determine what else you'll need to consider for the defense of your home, keeping on eye on the surrounding so you don't get surprised. Oh, and maybe it's just me, but I'd want more than just one way in and out - limits points of ingress, yeah, but also limits you getting out... provided you don't live with a warper attached to the hip. And even then..."

Her lush, full lips twisted wryly. "I can't say living in a veritable bunker underground would be enticing to me, but if anyone could make it livable and comfortable and look like anything but a hole in the ground," Jason nodded at Chang, "it's the two of you, Chang. Do you have an architect in your circle of artists? I used Artifex for one of my homes - a good architect can magnify a limited amount of space enormously."

Glancing at Chang, if Jason was still not quite sure what all the reasons were that Sakura had made her proposal jointly with her, some of her tenseness eased. If this wasn't exactly what she expected her first meeting with Chang Zha-Yang after so many years would be, she'd take it. She offered the eccentric woman a genuine smile and a deep nod in gratitude.

"This isn't exactly how I thought we'd meet again, but despite it being ten years late, I hope you'll accept my heartfelt thanks and appreciation for 'When Yanluo Falls.'" It wasn't said out of mere politeness or social convention, there was only complete honesty and thanks in her pure voice. "And I'd like you congratulate you on finding someone you could grow so close to. It really shows, especially compared to when I first met you."

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Chang fixed Bombshell with a critical glare. “I am an architect, Jason. Really I’m amazed you hadn’t noticed. Who do you think designed the main dance floor of the Rainbow Room? I built it to emphasize the acoustics, since I envisaged I’d likely be doing live performances there whenever Andy could persuade me.”

She opened her mouth to address Jason’s thanks, when a distinctive dripping sound caught her ear. “Ah. I believe that our long awaited reunion may be put off a little further. If I am not mistaken, someone wicked this way comes.”

A few moments later, a trickle of red oozed under the door to the room, followed by more and still more until a pool of what looked suspiciously like blood was forming on the carpet. The pool surged upward, feminine features taking rapid shape before solidifying into a beautiful, white-skinned woman with black eye shadow and lipstick, clear crystalline eyes and straight black hair down to her shoulders. She was clad in a mix of black and purple, all silks, and her hands were bedecked with rings. Most notable was a silver claw ring that tipped the left index finger. Her belly was grotesquely swollen, obscenely rounded, as if she carried a beach ball underneath her clothes, and her breasts seemed near-spherical.

“Oh,” she said, her voice dark and warm and a little seductive, “yummy,” she said, looking at Jason. Then she turned to Chang, and her expression relaxed somewhat. “My queen, your other guest has arrived.” She rested her hands atop her swollen, round belly, with a little smile playing around her lips. Despite its obscene size, she showed no sign of inconvenience at all.

Chang inclined her head. “Thank you, Cyndi. As I suspected,” she said to Jason. “To quickly answer your query, yes several locations have been selected. We’ll handle that part of things on our end. We can maybe discuss the other matters on another, more… intimate occasion. I fear that business tends to put a damper on matters of the heart. I am glad you liked the song, though.”

She gestured for both women to rise, and when they did, Chang herself stood, the sofa melting away into flesh that sucked up and formed into her tight rump, before being covered up by her hair-clothing. “Ah, Sakura. This is Cyndi Carter, The Alchemist. I’ve mentioned her before, I believe. Ordinarily she has a much less impressive figure but I’ve been running her ragged lately.”

The Alchemist gave a little curtsy that set both breasts and belly to rippling. Her eyes rolled a little and she stifled a gasp. “Well, when The Mirror Queen speaks true, she really does speak true. Once I’ve emptied out I think I’m going to have to rest for a while. My node feels like a squeezed sponge right now.” She pouted with her inky black lips. “I hope my queen will deign to reward me?”

“Naturally,” Chang said.

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Sakura hugged Jason tightly, truly grateful for her help and trying to undo the moment of offense from Chang's irritation. "Thank you, Jason. So much. Once things settle down a bit, we should get together. Maybe see if we could have a small party or something at my apartment at the palace in Kinshasa? I've got that beautiful garden and I haven't had just a fun gathering of friends there yet."

Her offer was sincere and she walked Jason back to the 'porter platform, which, once she thought about it, wasn't really necessary but seemed polite. Like walking someone to the door. "And if there's time to fit around the movie and everything else, perhaps you can take me to the Foundation so I can get started working with them?"

Jason nodded and gave the sweet girl a kiss on the cheek. Well, not quite girl. She is going to be a mother within the year. "I'll do that. Send me your schedule and we'll work something out. Just don't take on too much, you've got little ones to think of, and they need you as rested and healthy as possible. Do you need me to stick around Ibiza until you're ready to go back to Kinshasa?"

"No, Chang's made arrangements with a friend of hers to get me around today. I'll be here for a while yet, and Rajinder will probably kill us both if I keep you here that long," Sakura replied cheekily.

"Alright, then. Give me a call if you need to leave early, though, okay?"

"I will." Sakura smiled and Jason nodded and simply blinked gone. That seems so useful. I wish I could do that...

Once Jason was seen off, Sakura made her way back to the study-like private room Chang had said they'd meet the Count in. It was more business-like than the cozy room they'd spoken with Jason in. To each situation, the right atmosphere. She sighed as she neared the door, I wonder if this will be as....complicated as it was with Jason. I hope not. That's more tiring than all the scene shoots I've done so far combined.

She knocked politely one the door and came in at Chang's invitation, bowing with ingrained etiquette before even really seeing the man standing next to Chang. "It is an honor to meet you, su señorío. I am Konohanasakuyahime."

Su señorío is Spanish for "your lordship", the proper for of adress for speaking to a Count without using formal titles.
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Chang left Sakura to say goodbye to Jason while she went to Raoul with The Alchemist.

She could hear the liquids sloshing under the taut skin of Cyndi’s belly and breasts, and the soft pleasurable gasps that she kept as restrained as possible.

“How goes your production?” Chang asked as they walked.

“I feel like a bloody milk cow,” The Alchemist countered, a sour twist going to her black lips. Her eyes, now black as sin, lacking pupil or iris, fixed upon her.

Chang paused to put her hand on the wall, stopping them both in the corridor. She pressed against her enough that her shaft rubbed up against her belly, and lengthened her other arm to slip under The Alchemist’s eufiber shirt to stroke the flesh.

The Alchemist’s head snapped back and she let out a full-throated moan of pleasure.

“Was that a complaint I heard from you?” Chang said, smiling, her voices full of sarcasm.

“No. Nothing of the sort,” The Alchemist replied. “Just making the point, you know?”

Chang separated from her. “I’ll have my wife send a few of her over to melt all over those assets of yours and stroke them all night long. Now, how goes the production?” She continued to walk.

“Good, good. Bleeding quantum like a stuck pig but it’s nothing if not a renewable resource, right?” The Alchemist chuckled. “I’ll empty myself after Lucrezia’s done with me, rest tomorrow and get back onto it the next day. Oh, wait, I have to do something for Narcosis first. I might be able to get away with bleeding that, but I’m not sure.”

“Thank you, Cyndi. Your assistance is valued as always.”

“Hope I get some preferential treatment in lessons,” she said with a wiggle of her eyebrows.

It was somewhat absurd that she managed somehow to walk with elegance while her belly and breasts were so swollen, but she made it look easy. Her skin became more and more sensitive the more swollen she became, so the more sensual she felt the more she tended to push her powers to store wine or milk or paint or whatever she needed to maintain that big and round shape. Accordingly, she had grown very used to moving around in this condition. “Orzais is waiting down there, my queen. Oh, and after you’re done with him and Sakura, could you come see me? I want to ask you something. Path-related, mentor and student stuff.”

Most likely there would be sex involved, too. Chang could hear it in Cyndi’s voice. And why not, she thought. I’m using her cruelly of late, and it’s been a long time since we lay together.

“I will see you later, Cyndi. It would be rude to keep the Count waiting any longer.”

“Chang,” she said, her voice gaining a rather different character, “you know we can’t keep this a secret forever, right?”

“Why not?”

“Someone’ll talk,” she said, with a shrug. “Someone always talks.”

That had crossed her mind a few times. “You are right. Hence why I am reducing the number of people who can talk only to those I trust absolutely,” Chang said, smiling.

“I know.” She pressed in close and kissed Chang passionately, then raised her arms above her head and melted into a mass of liquid flesh that flowed away along the floor.

Chang turned left at the next intersection and ascended a handful of steps before knocking upon the door.

It opened, revealing Shiv stood inside, tied up as always and bent backward, a tendril of flesh extended from the upper swell of her right breast. The tendril retracted and vanished. She gave her peculiar bow. “My queen,” she purred, “Count Raoul Orzais, is awaiting your pleasure.”

“Though not impatiently,” Raoul said.

The Count was a man incapable of being less than splendid. He was clad in the finest Neofiber shirt and trousers, with a dinner jacket buttoned down the front. His head looked newly shaved, his goatee pristinely clipped as always.

Chang stroked Shiv’s ponytail, and the Nova rose and exited the room. Chang closed the door behind her. “Sakura will be along in a short while. It is good to see you again, Raoul.”

Orzais rose from the plush chair he had been sitting in and took Chang’s hand to place a kiss on the back of her hand. “The pleasure is all mine my queen. I am but a scion of a noble house after all.” His words were tinged with humour. They always played that game in private. Chang was no nobility, of course, if such a thing even mattered amongst Novas.

They pushed their furniture aside and took opposite sides of the chessboard table. Chang formed furniture for them both and a third chair for Sakura when she would arrive.

“Ah, much more comfortable,” Raoul said as he leaned back into Chang’s body and wriggled. “I swear, Chang, you get better at this every time.”

“That’s because I do, Raoul. You have a particular posture when you’re reclining or resting, and I’m growing more familiar with it and how best to comfort you. One must continue to improve, after all.”

“Undoubtedly,” The Count said. “Speaking of which, your friend Shiv was telling me that she’s been working on the piano. Last I heard she lacked a degree of fine control with her limbs.

Chang smiled. The Count was one of a rare few who never so much as blinked at the peculiarities of her students. Shiv warped her breasts and buttocks into arms and hands, and usually played two pianos at once. There had once been a time when the best she could do was throttle a man with her breasts. Chang considered it a great achievement that she was now at a stage where she could play not one but two instruments at once without any loss of dexterity or accuracy. “I am always proud of Shiv.”

“As well you should be. She is both beautiful and deadly, a great boon to you and yours.”

That was when Sakura entered the room.

The Count rose, putting on his most genuine, most friendly smile. “Ah, yes,” he said, when she introduced herself, “I have heard much and more about you. Come, sit, sit, our host has prepared her finest for me. I hope she has been treating you with the respect you deserve,” he said, with a touch of reproach in his voice.

When they were all sat, The Count clicked his fingers. “Drinks. I do believe drinks are required. That most charming lady Cyndi was wandering around earlier. Has she perhaps produced some of her special brew for my coming?”

Chang stretched her arms over to the drinks cabinet and fetched glasses, bottles, a tray, and formed a small side table beside the chessboard on which to put the drinks. “Of course she has. Some of it’s even begun to age a little.”

“Fascinating,” The Count said, and poured a little amber liquid from a wine bottle. He smiled at Sakura. “I presume you know about The Alchemist’s most fascinating abilities?” At Sakura’s nod he took a sip, rolled the liquid on his tongue and swallowed. “Truly a marvel, she is. A single drop of my sweat and she can create the perfect drink to please me, and get me drunk.” He chuckled. “If you have not taken advantage of her services, I suggest you to. She charges ruinously for anyone who is not a friend of her dear Mirror Queen.”

Chang nodded, pouring fine Alchemist white for herself. Not attuned to her, but strong and delicious. “There are advantages to being a Nova’s mentor.”

After a few more minutes of effusive small-talk, in which The Count set up the chess board and regaled Sakura with the tale of the amp room’s fall, the Rainbow Room’s rise, and his and Chang’s role in the latter, he leaned back and flicked his eyes across the both of them. “Now, my dears, I sense that there is more to my presence here than a polite chat. What would you have of Raoul Orzais this evening?”

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"I..um..I'll check with her, but I'm not much for drinking alcohol," she demurred. She smiled at the Count, unable to help herself from liking him. I wonder if that's literally true. She poured herself some of the hot apple cider that Shiv had started leaving around in places where Sakura would be after she'd noticed how often Sakura would bring apples with her from Kinshasa. A gentle enquiring had revealed that she had grown an apple in her garden and would bloom a few apples for herself every day. A simple craving to fill, and Shiv was doing her best to help. Sakura held the warm mug in her hands and drank in the spicey apple smell.

"And Chang has been wonderful. I've never had many close friends, so it's nice to make a new one." She transferred her smile to Chang, though it was hard to take her eyes off the Count. And she certainly wasn't taking her attention off of him. When she looked back at the Count, it was a with a coy smile masquerading as demure, "Perhaps I could play the game tonight? As the newcomer?" There was a slight pause and then Sakura motioned to the chessboard and Orziaz. "I've heard you're an amazing player, and I haven't played in years. A chance to learn."

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At Sakura’s suggestion, Chang raised one eyebrow. Her time with the young Nova had shown that she was anything but what she appeared, far wiser and far more intelligent. Admittedly she did not take her in for long, but Orzais was not as perceptive as her.

He smiled gamely at the suggestion and looked to Chang. “Do you mind, your Grace? I haven’t beaten you in nearly a year, anyway.”

“Not in a series, no,” Chang said. “Very well. Perhaps Sakura will permit you to crawl away from the table with pride intact.”

“Perhaps she will. My lady, I accept your challenge.”

Chang raised her head slightly, and then her body dissolved, melting into the chair-self she had been sitting upon. When Sakura rose, Chang pushed her body out of the plush red leather of the seat, forming a leather version of her body before it morphed into flesh and hair-clothing. She crossed her elegant legs shaped her right hand into a glass, and stretched her left arm across the chess board to fetch more wine for herself.

Sakura gave her a little smile, and took her place on the other chair facing Orzais.

Chang cleared her throat. “I believe you have forgotten something, Count.”

Orzais smiled. “Never, your Grace, I merely did not presume to remind you.”

At Sakura’s blank look, Chang put out her left hand, palm up. The flesh rippled a moment, and Chang pushed out her iron coin. It popped free of the flesh and lay in her hand, until she gave a little ripple of the skin to toss it into the air and moved her hand to catch it effortlessly upon her thumb.

“As always, life is black, death is white,” she said. “I shall flip for Sakura.”

Chang concentrated a moment, distracted herself by imagining the pleasures her wife might be gracing The Alchemist with, and flipped the coin. She kept her mind occupied. Even an instant’s free thought would result in her calculating the coin’s path.

She snatched it from the air, turned her hand over and unfurled her fingers to reveal the coin. It had landed death side up. “I believe you must switch seats,” she said.

The Count was gracious as ever, standing and dusting off Chang’s seat-self for Sakura, before swapping places with a pristine and regal bow.

Chang placed her coin on the edge of the board, leaned back and sipped her wine, wondering how the game might go.

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They played the Indian-born war game amidst polite conversation and gentle probes by the Count to tease out of the quiet young nova details of her past and upbringing. Sakura divulged small details, speaking of growing up near a small town, mostly just her and her parents; she countered by asking questions, light but insightful, on how his life had differed from a noble in a democratic country and as a nova celebrity. Serious conversation was laid aside as the game became an intricate dance of move and counter-move planned out to the end game with each move.

"Checkmate," the Count finally announced, moving his bishop into place. He quirked a smile at Sakura with a speculative expression. "I played poorly, tonight. You let me win."

Sakura returned the smile and nodded. "Yes."


"Chess is a game of tactics, a reflection of life and war. I know little of war, but much of life."

"That's how. Why?" he pressed, smile still in place and tone pleasant; his eyes betrayed his intense curiosity.

"Because winning would have just showing that I could." Sakura's switches between subtle manipulation and open candor could be dizzying. "Losing showed more of you and less of the game. A far more interesting experience than a moment of victory of chess."

He chuckled and nodded, conceding the point; he'd done and did much the same when he was learning the intricacies of allies, enemies, and the innumerable in-betweens. "You always do know the most interesting people, Your Grace," he turned his attention back to Chang, the mood of the room shifting from social pleasantries to the matters that had brought him there.

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My, my, Chang thought as the game progressed, is there anything you can’t do, my dear?

She knew what was going on long before Raoul did. The opening moves in chess were often revealing, and as much as ever here. Orzais knew many different styles but by and large he played not to lose, the same way that he lived life. He conserved, diverted, did his best to hide his treasures and expend them only when necessary.

For her own part, Sakura played defensively from the beginning, setting up a complex defensive web that dared Orzais to begin the wholesale slaughter of ebony and ivory.

He was beat inside fifteen moves, though she only felt the subtle muscular tensions that showed he too had realized it after another twenty moves were done.

But then Sakura made a few tell-tale moves. She left an inexplicable couple of gaps in her defences. It kept them talking, though, and that was clearly her real goal.

The Count realized that, too, and accepted his victory with the closest thing to ill-grace he ever could. When he lay back in her body, she could feel the muscles tensing all down his spine. Yet Sakura had him disarmed with just a few simple words. She is formidable, this mother of Novas. That much was clear. And no doubt would perform as well in war as without if the mood took her.

“It is an affliction,” Chang said, toasting The Count’s tainted victory.

“So, I am handed an undeserved victory. Am I to take this as a sign of things to come?” He gave a knowing smile and sipped his drink.

Here it comes. Time for us to get to business, and for the Count to have his way with me, Chang could not help a few sour thoughts at that. In some ways she was not so unlike the fawning sops that always hung on Orzais’ arm. “Not at all, my friend,” she said, “I will fight you every inch of the way, but we both know you’ll get what you want in the end. This time, though, I intend to take a pound of flesh with me in defeat.”

“That sounds most fearsome. Am I to be flensed, then?”

“One or two of your bank accounts might be, but I would never harm your body, as unappealing as it is,” Chang said, emptying her goblet-hand and refilling it to the brim.

Orzais laughed uproariously. “I shall never tire of your presence, Your Grace. You may be the only woman in the world who could bring herself to say such a thing. Sakura here has been heaping kindnesses on my ugly visage.”

“She does not know you yet, and is not a committed lesbian with a wife waiting in the wings,” Chang said with a wink. “How is Charlotte, by the way?”

“Healthy as ever, much like my son,” he said. “It is to be money, then? Am I funding some other work of art that mortal man dare not conceive?”

Not far off… “In a manner of speaking, yes,” she said. “It’s a surprise, and you’ll like it. The amount we’ll need is not inconsiderable, however.”

The Count’s eyes flickered between Chang and Sakura, gauging, analysing. He would know that Chang was holding something back from him, of course, but their relationship was at a point where he would take her on her word. She was quite sure he would approve when he knew the truth, but not even he could be trusted with the details right now. He was too close to too many people, and he was altogether too willing to pass along secrets if they gave him political advantage. The only question here was the favour he would expect in return.

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Sakura kept her expression bland and pleasant as the two of them bantered. She was a little surprised by the mix of rancor and friendship between the two of them. Everyone is so complicated. I think I should stick to plants and house cats after this.

"'Not inconsiderable,'" the Count mused, arching a brow. "I remember the last time you said that. You could have bought a small country or two. Three, if you weren't too picky on location."

"Hmmm..." Sakura grinned, "An entire country." She gave Chang a wink, "You could give the Storm King a rival nova Queen, then, eh Chang?"

Chang only dignified that with a snort and an eye roll.

"Somehow I can't quite see the Mirror Queen spending that much time away from her art." He toasted to her, "Or caring much for being publicly compared to King Einherjar on that front." He settled back into the chair, sipping at his wine, "Are we speaking such a sum again, Your Grace?"

"Not quite, but close." Chang named a figure that would have had most international CEO's blanching; it was about a third of what she and Sakura expected to be able to convince him over. An opening gamble.

The Count set his drink down on the table and contemplated for a moment, then nodded, "Done."

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And now for my part in the negotiation, Chang thought. She stretched her arm out across the room back to the drinks cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of The Alchemist’s finest absinthe, matched to her own quantum signature.

The Count observed her choice with a cool eye and the expression she knew all too well, which said that he was just waiting for the right time to spring his surprise on her. “Do you choose a stronger drink to celebrate our deal, your grace?”

“You could say that,” Chang said, pouring a little of the glowing green liquid into her goblet. Just the taste of it on the stone-skin made her shiver a little.

“And if I were not to?”

“Then you could say I have a feeling I’ll need a strong drink at the end of this conversation and am preparing in advance,” she said with a smile.

Raoul laughed and refilled his glass. “What gives you that impression?”

“You’re wearing the face again.”


“It’s a special expression you always wear when you’re planning to spring something on me that I’m not going to like,” Chang said, matter-of-factly. “It’s an expression I’ve come to dread and am always on the watch for.”

The Count adopted a frown at this news and cupped his chin. “I had no idea I was so easy to read, Chang. Might you explain this to me?”

“I might, but I won’t,” she said, and tipped her glass to him. “I have few enough advantages over your as it is, Raoul. You’ll forgive me for hanging on to the few I retain.”

“I suppose I shall,” he said. The Count took a moment to regain his composure and rubbed his hands together. “You aren’t going to like this, but given that I know you’re hiding something from me and I am going to allow you to keep your secret, I hope you’ll be more co-operative than usual. I know you’ve heard that there’s a new documentary being filmed about my life. The fifth, in fact, and on this occasion I’m inclined to give my adoring public something… unexpected.

Chang’s mouth curled in distaste. “Me.”

The Count adopted a look of absolute surprise. “Why, that’s a fantastic suggestion, your grace. If only I could have come up with that.” He grinned, tipped his glass in her direction, drank.

“I knew I had not heard the last of it when I turned Narcosis down.”

“Quite rudely, she tells me.”

Chang swirled the absinthe in her goblet, feeling the warm liquid sloshing against her rim. “You know why I decline, Count.”

“You are reclusive by nature, true, and generally slow to trust,” he conceded, “but it’s not that I intend for you to be going on stage alone.”

“The last time I did a sit-down TV interview I nearly strangled the interviewer with my hair,” Chang pointed out, and gulped some absinthe. It burned going down, but the taste had a sugary edge that soothed her tastebuds.

Sakura regarded her with curiousity when she said that, but did not push the issue and focused on her own drink, and on listening to their exchange. There was wisdom in silence. Chang had learned that over the years.

The Count nodded. “You did, yes, but you were younger then, and the Teragen was a newer concept. It is many years later, your public image has been consolidated thanks to the efforts of Narcosis and myself, and the questions you answer will be appropriately screened.”

Chang gave a dismissive flick of her hand. “If I do this, there’ll be none of that. Either I do the interview or I don’t, I’ll not be coddled either way.”

“Well. We both know you are going to do it. I think right now I can reasonably say you owe it to me.”

She did not believe that was reasonable, in fact. Money meant nothing to Count Orzais, a point he was keen to make in as showy a manner as possible. She held her tongue, though. There was an unspoken edge to what he said. The Count would not press her for information on her secrets, no, but if she did not co-operate then he would ensure he learned of what his money was being spent on.

That was risky.

And we need this money, he thought. The crèche is one of my most important ideas. It must succeed. She ground her teeth, resisting in her mind, knowing that Orzais would keep her pinned in this room for however many hours he would need to break her down, and if that did not work he would pester her with OpNet calls and lavish gifts until she agreed. He was a persuasive man and when his heart was set on something he pulled out all the stops to achieve it.

“It has been… some time,” Chang said softly, all four voices dropped to a whisper. “There is less in common between us now than there was then.”

“But you have more fans than you realize, and there are advantages to giving them access. It might even be interesting for your students,” he said.

Chang leaned back in herself, nodding. She did not find his arguments persuasive, and never would, but she knew how it went. Narcosis would be pleased, at least, and Puck would likely be interested. “As you will, Orzais. I grant you your blood price.”

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XP: 6 Nova

Good Roleplaying here too, lots of exploration of nova power and potential here, so I awarded extra nova points, in fact, besides the 4 standard points the Interlude, that's all I awarded, and I felt generous with them, sense this situation creates lots of potential for future plots.

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