A Spark of Inspiration

Chapter 1

“Did you see the latest article?”
 
I smile as my assistant waves her tablet at me.
 
“You know I don’t check stalkbook at work, Cheryl.”
 
“Michael Anderson, or should we say ‘Midas’ Anderson has completely bucked all expected trends, turning AOD developments from yet another struggling venture-capital startup into a major player on the digital stage.” She reads, ignoring my dismissive response.
 
“Isn’t it funny how they like me now that the new model’s launched?” I snort
 
“Well apparently we’re still under boycott from the national universities.”
 
I wave my hand dismissively. “We’ve cracked the hundred million mark with 1.5. If Apple was anything to go by, peer pressure should do the remainder of the work for me. They might call me any number of names under the sun, but you watch them all line up on the next launch day, pretending they don’t see each other in the queue.”
 
“Google’s still making noises about suing you.”
 
I laugh. “They can’t sue me without admitting they stole half of it in the first place. Let them rattle their sabres.”
 
Cheryl shakes her head. “You’re going to find yourself dead of a heart attack if you keep pissing off people with that much money.”
 
“Don’t be a tinfoiler, Cheryl.” I snicker, “Google’s not exactly the monolith it used to be, what with the San Fran Flop and the privacy reforms Trump’s pushed through in the states.”
 
The device on my wrist buzzes. Tapping the discrete earpiece coiled around my ear, I answer. “Mike Anderson?”
 
“Mike, you faggot, tell your receptionist to stop flirting with me over the phone.”
 
“Hah. That was the new model’s Virtual Assistant. Like it?”
 
“No shit, really? So what’s going to meet me for dinner tomorrow night, a goddamn construction robot?”
 
I groan, putting my hand over my face briefly. “Oh Christ Frank, you didn’t ask out my phone did you?”
 
A laugh on the other end. “Nah, I’m fucking with you. Remember we’re meeting tomorrow to discuss that patent agreement.”
 
“Don’t know why we’re bothering. You know it’s just going to be me agreeing with you for an hour.”
 
“Yeah, but I got that delicious 24 year old for us to double-team”
 
“I really hope you’re talking about scotch, Frank.”
 
“Of course scotch. You’re a married man, you fucking lecher.”
 
“Thanks for remembering, you poof. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
 
“Yeh, seeya then mate.”
 
I terminate the call, shaking my head and chuckling helplessly. My wrist buzzes again, rolling my eyes, I tap my earpiece.
 
“You’re a shithouse lawyer, did you know that?” I drawl.
 
“Mike?” My wife’s voice asks uncertainly
 
“Oh! Sorry love. Thought you were Frank being Frank.”
 
“Oh lovely. Do you talk to all our friends like that?”
 
“Just the ones I’m paying. What’s up?”
 
“Don’t forget you’re picking up Stevey from mum’s tonight on the way home.”
 
“Yep! I’m actually on my way out the door right now.” I assure her, mouthing ‘Oh Shit’ at Cheryl.
 
“Thanks baby. I’ve got a late class tonight so you boys will be sorting yourself out for dinner. And don’t you dare just impose on mum again!”
 
“What the hell are parents for if not imposing?” I jest
 
“It’s their anniversary, Mike.”
 
“I know, I know… Love you.”
 
“Love you too baby.” A quiet ‘bip’ as the call terminates.
 
“Family stuff?” Cheryl murmurs quietly.
 
I nod, “Picking my son up. Sorry, it completely slipped my mind.”
 
“You are such a cliché Michael.” She chuckles. “Don’t worry about the shareholders update, I’ve already asked David to take care of it.”
 
“You’re a treasure.”
 
“Well you’re paying me for it.”
 
“And here I was thinking I just hired you for your looks.”
 
“Get going you filth!” Cheryl cried in mock outrage, stifling a familiar laugh. Waving, I grabbed my briefcase, heading down to the parking garage.
 
Traffic was foul, as it tended to be at this time of the early evening. Something ear-wormy was playing quietly on the radio, and I turned it up slightly.
 
“My beloved monster and me…” I sang along softly, “We go everywhere together…”
 
A siren intruded, and I glanced in my mirrors, scanning for the lights. Strange, that truck was coming up awfully quickly… Too quickly…
 
“Kylie… Stevey…” Were my last thoughts as the truck slammed into the side of my car. The broken glass seemed to move in slow motion, twinkling like diamonds in front of my eyes before the terrific impact sent me spiralling into blackness.
 
 
Voices… Shapes… They came and went, lost against the cloudy darkness. Kylie was there sometimes… My parents… Her parents… I tried to speak but my mouth wouldn’t work. Something in my mind pushed on my consciousness like a warm blanket, bidding me to close my eyes.
 
Close my eyes and sleep.
 
“No change…” A soft voice. “…remarkably strong, considering…”
 
A woman’s voice… I didn’t recognise it. Dim sensation, a faint prick of pain in my arm.
 
Unfamiliar hands turning me, sensation of something penetrating me. I tried to cry out in objection, but the blanket came back with its wordless bid to sleep… sleep…
 
Beep… Beep… Beep…
 
I turned my head, opening my eyes and squinting at the cold green light from the machine next to me.
 
“What…” I grated through a throat painfully dry. Blinking, I focused on the device… Heartrate… blood pressure, lines of tubes coming from saline bags to… That lump under the blanket, that was my arm.
 
Of course. The truck, the crash. I was in hospital. Must have been a hell of a thing, I felt as weak as a day old kitten. Thirst yelled in my throat.
 
“Nurse” I croaked. No response except the dispassionate beeping of the monitor. I scanned the sides of the bed for a call button. Nothing. What kind of rubbish place had they taken me to?
 
As I rolled my eyes upward, I saw a large red button above my head. Well that should get SOMEONE’s attention. I made to reach up with the arm not covered in tubes. The blanket felt like it was made of solid lead, the effort of raising my arm had me gritting my teeth.
 
The back of my hand impacted with the button, before collapsing onto my chest. Strange. My arm looked… withered.
 
Must just be the light, I reasoned, as the sound of rapidly approaching feet sounded outside the doorway.
 
“Damn machines!” A woman’s voice muttered “Going off on their own all the tim… Oh!” She gasped as she came into view and her eyes met mine.
 
“What’s a guy have to do to get a glass of water around here?” I croaked, flashing a grin.
 
Without missing a beat, she bolted. “DOCTOR!” she shrieked.
 
“S’orright… Take your time…” I muttered to the uncaring monitor, beeping passionlessly beside me.
 
 
“How are you feeling?” The doctor asked, peering at me oddly.
 
“Like I just got hit by a truck.” I snicker.
 
“You’re in pain then?”
 
I paused. “No… Actually remarkably little. Just… really drained. Got me on the good stuff eh?”
 
“Yes, of course…” The Doctor answered, a little too quickly.
 
“Is my wife still here?” I asked, trying to sit myself up. The nurse beside me pushed me gently back down. Odd… She seemed to have some kind of feathery ruff around her wrists, and her hair had the same tan feather-like texture.
 
“Your wife?” The doctor echoed uncomprehendingly
 
“Yeah, she was just here before I nodded off, before you stuck the catheter in me. Buy a guy a drink before you go grabbing his junk next time, by the way.” I jibed. The nurse gave a brief burp of involuntary laughter.
 
“Er, forgive me, Mr Anderson, I’m afraid I’m not entirely familiar with your case.” The Doctor answered, seeming flustered for some reason.
 
“Hit by a truck? Hardly seems complicated, anyway, I’m asking about my wife, not me.”
 
A flash of memory struck me and I groaned. “Ah Christ. Stevey. She’s gonna rip my head off when she gets here. Least I’ve got a good excuse huh?”
 
“Yes well, um… I’m going to call Dr Naylor on this… he’s the one… Overseeing your case.” The Doctor stammered before leaving.
 
“Huh, new resident?” I asked the nurse.
 
“You… Could say that.” The nurse answered delicately, her voice soft and dulcet. “Can I get you anything, Mr Anderson?”
 
“Something to eat? My stomach’s acting like I’ve forgotten it exists.”
 
“Some soup?” the Nurse offered “You don’t want to have anything too heavy, you’ve been out for… a while.”
 
“Sure, yeah. Thanks.” I murmured, making to push myself up.
 
“No no… Lie back down Mr Anderson!” She chided in that same dulcet tone, pushing me to the bed again.
 
“Doctor’s orders?” I chuckle
 
“Nurse’s Orders.” She corrects, patting my shoulder gently.
 
I sneak a peek at her as she left the room. Cute butt. Strange, there was something moving under the long skirt she wore… and the fabric rustled as if over… feathers?
 
 
“Oh thank you Jesus!” I groan as I feel the catheter being removed from my manhood. “I will NEVER lament having to get up to piss ever again!”
 
“Uncomfortable?” The nurse asks gently.
 
“You have no idea.” I chuckle “By the way, I can’t place your accent, what is it?”
 
“Kikimora” The nurse answers simply with a small, shy smile.
 
“Kikimora…” I echo, “…Sounds Slavic.”
 
“Originally, yes. I suppose.” She concedes. Weird. That wasn’t really an answer. Still, business called, and I pushed myself up from the bed, swinging my legs over the side as she busied herself putting equipment away.
 
My legs were sheathed in compression stockings, but they looked… skinnier.
 
“I need to visit hospitals more often, looks like I’ve lost a bit of weight!” I declare, moving to stand.
 
“Mr Anderson!” The nurse cried as she rushed to my side.
 
“I won’t hear it!” I declared. “I am not going to piss into a tube for another day. I am going to the damn toilet.”
 
“Well lean on me. You’re going to be… unsteady.” She insisted, swinging my arm over her slight shoulders. I groaned as I stood, pain shooting up the muscles as my legs took my weight.
 
“Thanks. I probably would have embarrassed myself there.” I chuckled “Must have been a hell of a crash.”
 
“From what I understand.” The nurse admitted as she helped me to the small bathroom. Gripping the rail with one hand, I hunted for my manhood with the other. As I did my business, I spotted a familiar figure out of the corner of my eye.
 
“Can’t a guy piss in peace dad?” I chuckle, shaking off and turning… To see a mirror.
 
“No.” I moaned, raising my hand to my face, looking as the older man in the mirror did the same.
 
I barely registered the pain in my knees as I collapsed to the floor, howling.
 
 
“Welcome back, Mr Anderson.” The nurse said softly as the fog of the sedative lifted from my brain.
 
“No chance that was a nightmare?”
 
The nurse shook her head, her weird, feather-like hair moving softly against her delicate features. “I’m sorry.” She offered consolingly, stroking my face with a smooth, cool hand.
 
“How long?” I croaked
 
“Fifteen years.” Came a new voice from the doorway. A young doctor entered, picking up my charts and looking them over. “Fifteen more than anyone thought you would live, I’ll be honest, but you’re a tough one. Uncle Frank always said you were.”
 
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded.
 
“Don’t you recognise me, Uncle Mike? It’s Ethan.”
 
“Ethan… Little Ethan? Frank’s nephew?”
 
“In the flesh.”
 
I put a hand to my face, the revelation almost overwhelming me.
 
“You were in a coma, Uncle Mike… And before you ask, yes. I called Aunt Kylie, she knows you’re awake, she’ll be here as soon as she can.”
 
“Dr Naylor? I’ll need you to sign off on the medication, and I don’t think we’ll need the morphine, the Alarune extract seems to be working fine.”
 
“Don’t be so quick on that one Nurse. I feel a distinct urge to chase dragons right no… Wait…” I paused as the significance of the name hit me. “You’re Dr Naylor? The one who’s been overseeing my ‘Case’?”
 
“Course I was, Uncle Mike. Couldn’t very well leave you to your own devices now, could we?” Ethan answered with a grin, and I saw the echoes of the cheeky boy I had, in my mind, waved goodbye to only a week before.
 
 
“Michael?”
 
The voice was older, yet unmistakable. I felt my heart clench as Kylie hesitantly entered the room.
 
“Hey beautiful.” I smiled.
 
“Oh Mike… I barely believed it when Ethan told me. Are you alright?”
 
“None the worse for a fifteen year nap, love. Where’s Stevey?”
 
Kylie looked at the floor. “He’s… At home. I… haven’t told him yet.”
 
“Oh” I frowned. Something wasn’t right here.
 
“In fact, I needed to talk to you about that.” Kylie sighed, coming around the bed and sitting next to me. “He… Doesn’t remember you, Mike.”
 
Fire flashed behind my eyes. “What. Did you just forget to mention to him that his dad’s in hospital in a fucking coma? Just… never came up in conversation?”
 
“We visited you every day, Mike…” Kylie shot back. “…for almost three years! Some of his first words were the names of the damn hospital staff!”
 
She bit back the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her. My heart was still full at the sight of her, and I reached out and took her hand. She didn’t respond, but neither did she push me away.
 
“I waited for six years… then… I had to move on, Mike. It wasn’t fair to just keep our lives on hold, hoping, praying that someday you’d wake up.”
 
“But I’m awake now, surely…” I insisted
 
“I’m married, Mike. I’ve been married for nearly six years… Longer than we were together.”
 
My guts turned to a block of ice.
 
“Frank made sure there were… provisions against the day… if you woke up. AOD did… really well. You should be proud.”
 
I couldn’t look at her. “You should have pulled the fucking plug.” I heard myself grate.
 
She looked at me, her face a mask of guilt and sorrow. “We did…”
 
“Didn’t work.”
 
“No…” Kylie admitted. “But you’ve always been strong. I hated you for that, Mike. Hated you for just lying there, refusing to die, failing to live, just existing as you aged in that bed while the world moved on around you, as I had to bury your parents…”
 
“No…” A blast of agony “…fuck… please no…”
 
“I did, Mike. I had to do everything, and I had to do it all alone for so long… I hated you. And I hated myself for hating you, and it was killing me. So eventually, I had to let you go. I signed Power of Attorney over to Frank, who signed the divorce papers, and I let you go.”
 
Kylie stood, letting my hand drop.
 
“B-but our son…” I stammered, grasping like a dying man at the last faint hope of the life I somehow knew I had lost.
 
“Fifteen years, Mike… He hasn’t been ‘our’ son for a very long time.” She said simply. “I’m sorry. Goodbye Michael. I…”
 
But that last would remain unsaid, as she walked from that room and out of my life forever.
 
The first cry was a wracking, tearing thing, ripping out of me like broken glass from my lungs. The soft hand of the Nurse on my cheek.
 
“I’m so sorry.” She murmured consolingly as I wept over the shattered remains of my heart.
 
 
“Calliope tells me you’re coming along remarkably well.” Ethan murmured, checking over my charts.
 
“She’s a sweetheart. Can I get the hell out of here now?” I sigh, buttoning my shirt over my greying chest hair.
 
“Fifteen years Uncle Mike. I’m sure a day or two either way won’t make much difference.”
 
“You try being stuck in a room with nobody but you and Cally to talk to for a month.” I retort.
 
Ethan gives me a level stare. “Nice to see you value my company so highly, Uncle Mike.”
 
“Sorry Ethan.” I sigh apologetically “I just don’t get it. After Kylie…” my voice cracks, and I swallow, determined to press on. “Well, nobody’s come to see me, hell, is there even anyone IN this hospital?”
 
Ethan’s lips pursed. “You’ve been… Isolated for a number of reasons. Some of them legal, some of them cultural…”
 
“Cultural? What? Did ya ship me out to fuckin’ Saudi Arabia or something?”
 
Ethan laughs “Nothing so dramatic. But quite a bit has changed.”
 
“Changed or otherwise, you could at least get me a bloody TV.”
 
“You wouldn’t be able to work it. Since the MidOS systems became essentially ubiquitous…”
 
“Come again?”
 
Ethan gave a smirk. “Congratulations. Your little consumer gadget holds essentially a hundred percent of the market share in personal communications, and a heavy majority in portable computing. People even use the moniker ‘PC’ to refer to your devices nearly exclusively now.”
 
I feel my hands start to shake slightly.
 
“Long story short, we’ve had to seriously limit who has access to you. There were no end of press and paparazzi who wanted to get a look at you, and that’s only increased now that news has apparently leaked that you were awake.”
 
“Still doesn’t explain why it’s only been you and Cally.”
 
“You’ve shown a remarkable recovery, I won’t lie. But it’s not just you. Some of the treatments we’ve been giving you have been… Unconventional.”
 
I blinked. “I’ve been a lab rat?”
 
“To an extent. Please believe me that nothing I did has ever put you at the slightest risk. The treatments offer no side effects to you personally, but associating with others while the treatments were ongoing could have been… problematic.”
 
“You make it sound like I’m radioactive.”
 
Ethan nodded, rocking his hand back and forth. “In a way, that’s a very good analogy. You’re not fully recovered, and if you had mingled with the general population, the results could have been embarrassing at best, and potentially fatal at worst.”
 
“No shit…” I murmur.
 
“There was also the question as to your… Mental stability.”
 
I grunted, rubbing at the bandage on my left wrist. “I told you, I’m fine now.”
 
“I’m not talking about the self-harm. That was predictable, all things considered. In fact Calliope feels terrible that you even got the opportunity.”
 
I flicked a glance to the strange, quiet nurse who brushed a length of her feather-like hair away from her face. “Not your fault Cally, I told you.”
 
“I know Michael, but still…” the nurse mused.
 
“You were displaying symptoms of something we’ve come to know as ‘Bender’s Disorder’.” Ethan continued “We don’t know much about it, only that it begins with some curiously uniform mnemonic distortions. The first is usually the misidentification of the Isles of Zipangu as a country called ‘Japan’.”
 
“I did that?” I chuckle “How doped up was I?”
 
“You weren’t, which was what’s so concerning. Until you there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of Benders which didn’t result in a complete psychotic break.”
 
“Then I must have been asleep. I’ve never even HEARD of anywhere called Japan.” I scoff.
 
“Indeed. It’s interesting, there might be a correlation between the massive trauma you suffered and the disorder. I’ve forwarded your scans to a few medical schools for analysis, if we can better understand how Benders begins, we might stand a chance of stemming it before anybody else gets hurt.”
 
“Fascinating. How does any of this reflect on me getting out of here again?” I ask, nonplussed.
 
Ethan chuckled. “Well actually, that’s up to Calliope. Well nurse? Is our patient fit for release?”
 
Calliope bent over where I was sitting, her deep, brown eyes boring intently into my own. Blinking once, she stood. “He should be fine, Doctor. It’s mostly out of his system now.”
 
“The fuck kind of witch doctor shit was that?” I mutter.
 
“Nothing so fantastic, Uncle Mike.” Ethan snickered. “The side-effects leave traces. Calliope’s… trained to notice them.”
 
Standing up, he handed me my walking stick, an unfortunate, and seemingly permanent souvenir of the traffic accident which had robbed me of so much.
 
“Well, that settles it. Let’s go.” Ethan said simply.
 
“Go where?”
 
“To see Uncle Frank of course, we have a LOT to get through.”
 
“So it would seem” I mutter, turning to Calliope. “It’s been an absolute privilege, my dear girl.” I say sincerely, kissing her hand and bowing floridly. Strange, she was still wearing those feathered cuffs, even under the nurse’s uniform.
 
Calliope raised a hand to her mouth, blushing and giggling in that reserved manner of hers.
 
“Stop charming my nurse and let’s go, Uncle Mike.” Ethan ordered with a slight chuckle.
 
“Yeah, coming.” I grin, hobbling after the young doctor.
 
 
“That looks so real…” I mutter as we pass a group of girls chatting outside a bakery, seemingly dressed in fantastic costumes. One of them had seemingly clad her entire lower half in a serpentine prosthesis, and seemed to have very little difficulty in manipulating it to move out of the way of another, Amazonian in appearance, with two amazingly lifelike horns attached to her forehead.
 
“What’s that?” Ethan asked.
 
“The costumes.”
 
“Oh.” Ethan replied “I didn’t notice, what were they?”
 
“There was a snake girl and something which looked like a red she-hulk with horns.” I reply, craning my neck to try and get another look at them as we turned another corner.
 
“Ah. Yeah. That.” Ethan answered shortly, his lips pursed firmly together.
 
“Something you’re not telling me mate?” I ask, frowning at his recalcitrance.
 
“Uncle Frank will go over it all with you, I promised him I’d let him do that much at least.”
 
“Are we almost there? I’ll admit I’m pretty lost…” I murmur “So much has changed.”
 
“You alright Uncle Mike?”
 
“Yeah… Yeah I’ll be OK.”
 
“Good, because we’re here.” Ethan remarked, turning into the vehicle bay of a large building, the plaque on the front reading “Naylor, Crane and Associates”
 
“Named partner… Frank’s done alright for himself then?”
 
“Didn’t hurt having your name as a client, Uncle Mike.” Ethan chuckled, pulling into a bay near the elevator.
 
“Where are the buttons?” I asked, looking at the metal panels of the elevator as we entered.
 
“Part of why we didn’t let you wander too far.” Ethan replied with a grin, holding a wrist-strap to a distinctive panel on the elevator. The strap blinked to life, a haptic display projecting onto the panel, a replica of the expected elevator controls. Ethan pushed one of the buttons, before removing his wrist, the display flickering from view.
 
“Noice…” I breathed.
 
“Your design.” Ethan chuckled as the elevator ascended with a slight hum.
 
“My what?”
 
“Well, your notes. Your assistant Cheryl said she found it cleaning your office.”
 
I stood there, open mouthed as my mind scoured my memories. “Wait…” I began, before being overcome by helpless laughter “T-those were notes for a video game!”
 
“Really? No wonder Ubisoft got so upset by it when AOD released UHandl.” Ethan exclaimed. “Still, it worked, and as far as I know nobody sued you.”
 
“Wouldn’t have been able to make much of an appearance if they did.” I snicker
 
Ethan smiled. “I’m glad you’re back, Uncle Mike.”
 
“Me too kid.” I reply, smiling at the young man.
 
The doors opened, breaking our momentary reverie. Ethan guided me through a bustling office… Wait. Fox ears? And… Was that a tail?
 
“Corporate dress standards sure have changed…” I murmur.
 
“Fashion’s a fickle mistress, I’m told.” Ethan answered absently.
 
“No, I mean the costumes.”
 
Ethan looked at me a little weirdly. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Uncle Frank…”
 
“Yeah, Frank’ll explain everything…” I sighed, interrupting the rote assurance.
 
Ethan knocked on a wood door, ‘Frank Naylor, Senior Partner’ engraved in gold lettering on its surface.
 
“Come in.” An authoritative, yet familiar voice answered. We entered, me with slight trepidation.
 
Frank looked at me, his greying hair swept back from his temples, a despicably expensive suit draped around a solid form now tending to corpulescence.
 
“Michael.” He said in greeting, standing and walking around the table.
 
“Frank.” I answered in the same polite, reserved tone.
 
He looked me up and down. “You got old.” He remarked.
 
“You got fat.” I responded, my expression blank.
 
Frank’s serious expression broke into a boyish grin and he swept me into a crushing bear hug. “Fucking hell but it’s good to see you back, Mikey!” He choked.
 
“Ow… fuck… Frank… invalid…” I gasped, hearing my ribs creak under his assault.
 
“Shit. Sorry. Sit down, sit down.” He entreated, waving at a pair of patent leather chairs in front of his desk. He tapped at his own wrist. “Miko, could you bring in the Lochnagar for me please?”
 
“THE Lochnagar, Naylor-Sama?” Came the heavily accented reply.
 
“Yes dear, and three glasses.” Frank replied, and momentarily a young woman came in, her gait almost skipping as she placed a bottle and three whiskey glasses upon the table.
 
“The Lochnagar, nyaa~” She exclaimed.
 
“Thank you Miko, and hold my calls for the rest of the afternoon. I have… A very important client here.”
 
“Miko understands nyaa~. Naylor-Sama is getting drunk with old friends.”
 
“DON’T tell them that.”
 
The young woman looked slightly puzzled, the cat-ears she was wearing twitching slightly. Amazing, I couldn’t even hear the servo motors in them… They looked so real.
 
“It’s no big deal nyaa~, bosses do it all the time in Zipangu nyaa~”
 
“Well this isn’t Zipangu.” Frank said simply “For the millionth time…” He added in a soft murmur.
 
The young woman skipped lithely from the room, closing the door behind her with a discrete click.
 
“You dirty old cunt.” I chuckled as Frank poured a liberal helping of the scotch for each of us.
 
“How do you mean?”
 
“Your assistant. The tail, the ears, that affectation. You’ll get in trouble if HR picks up on it.” I snicker. “Besides, didn’t even realize you had fetishes in the cosplay way.”
 
“Cosplay…” Frank echoes, looking askance at Ethan.
 
“He’s been going on about the costumes all day.” Ethan remarked, sipping at his scotch.
 
“Oh God…” Frank chuckled helplessly, taking a healthy belt from his glass.
 
 
“You’re serious.”
 
Frank nodded. “Completely”
 
“Monsters”
 
“They prefer to be called ‘Mamono” Ethan interjected.
 
I shake my head incredulously. “I can’t believe it.”
 
“Do you want me to get Kariah back in here? Hang you from the roof this time?” Frank snickered.
 
“That would probably kill him.” Ethan snickered.
 
“Fuck you boyo, I’m not that delicate.” I grumble “And no, you don’t have to get the spider back in here…”
 
“Then what’s the problem?” Frank chuckles, gesturing expansively with his scotch glass.
 
“I guess the first question is ‘How’?”
 
“Nobody’s really sure. It was actually the year after your accident, they were just… There. No portals, no spaceships, no heavenly gateways or demonic rifts… just all of a sudden there’s the sum total of human mythology and a fair bit of anthropomorphism tacked along for the ride, all packed up into these girls, hanging around like they own the place.” Frank explained.
 
I turned to Ethan. “This is the ‘Cultural’ thing you were talking about.”
 
Ethan nodded. “Also the side effects. Part of why I wanted to get you into your lawyer’s office before anything… embarrassing occurred. See as you probably noticed, they’re all female.”
 
“I did spot that, yeah. So where are the blokes? How do they…”
 
“Us.”
 
“Us?”
 
“Us. And they’re aggressive with it too.” Ethan continued.
 
“Let’s all pause for the high school boys who now have absolutely nothing to hopelessly fantasize about…” I snickered, before noticing the stony expressions on both men’s face.
 
“The ‘figures of Mythology’ thing isn’t just a best-fit. As far as we can tell there are a disturbing number which have displayed abilities far beyond anything a human is capable of. And they’re focused, primally, instinctually focused, on finding a mate.” Ethan stated, looking at me seriously. “And ‘No’ isn’t always taken as an answer.”
 
“So guys save some money trying to pick up at the bar, so what?” I exclaim, taking another drink.
 
“No, you don’t get it. Casual sex is… rare. Like REALLY rare. From what we can tell they’re exclusively, almost religiously monogamous. Once you’re caught, you’re caught.”
 
“Til death do you part. Literally.” Frank interjects.
 
“Hang it all, how do you two know all this?” I demand “What, they have a new short course titled ‘The cute monsters and you, how to avoid getting raped in an alleyway?”
 
“That’s one of the titles, isn’t it?” Ethan asked.
 
“Close enough, yeah.” Frank agreed.
 
“Oh Christ…” I groaned “If this is a dream then it’s time to wake up.”
 
“Afraid not mate.” Frank offered gently, pouring another measure into my glass.
 
“So seriously, how do you know?” I repeated, taking another drink.
 
“We got caught.” Ethan answers simply. I think hard. Calliope’s weird feathered cuffs, her odd mannerisms, the swishing something beneath her skirt…
 
“Cally?”
 
“Good guess, she’s what they call a ‘Kikimora’. Absolutely unmatchable in the service and healthcare sector. Almost like they were bred for it.” The young man grins.
 
“Caters to you in other ways too if I don’t miss my guess.” Frank snickered.
 
“Uncle Frank!” Ethan objected, glancing self-consciously at me.
 
“And you Frank?” I ask, ignoring Ethan’s discomfort.
 
“Ever heard of a Tanuki?” Frank asks, leaning back in his chair
 
“Aren’t they the little Raccoon-things that run around the Zipangan countryside?”
 
“Bit more than that when it comes to Zipangan folklore, and that’s what we’re dealing with… And apparently I’m the kinda guy who’s like china white heroin to them. Had three join my accounting branch back in twenty-two, all of them apparently fighting to get me to notice them. Until one decides she’s going to re-work my entire investment portfolio and come into my office wearing nothing but a printout of the profit margin… Needless to say it worked.”
 
“Is that what Kayo did? You never did tell me…” Ethan chuckled, relieved to have the pressure off him.
 
“You didn’t need to know, boy.” Frank snickers.
 
“So… What… You’re sex slaves now or something?” I exclaim, wide eyed.
 
“Hah. No… Sorry Mike, we probably came off a little bit strong there. I can’t speak for Ethan but I’ve never been happier, to be honest. We just wanted to press the urgency of what we’re dealing with before you go letting the first good looking… And besides the ‘accoutrements’, most of them are VERY good looking… girl who hits on you take you to bed. Especially now…”
 
“…now Kylie’s not in the picture.” I choke, hot tears threatening to spring into my eyes.
 
“Sorry mate, do you need a bit?” Frank offered sincerely.
 
“No… No.” I answer, “She’s not wrong. Fifteen years is a long time and…”
 
“Faugh.” Frank snorted “I waited…”
 
“And you had Kayo, and the firm. Kylie had nothing but a little boy who looked just like the man she loved who was hovering on the edge of death for the better part of two decades.” Ethan objected.
 
“Huh. Guess you’re right…” Frank admitted grudgingly.
 
“So was that it? Don’t dick the monsters unless you’re serious about it?”
 
“Well that and to show you what you’ve missed on the business side of things…” Frank answered, pulling out a piece of paper. “First off, this is Steven’s trust.”
 
He tore off a section, sliding it across to me. I flipped it over, whistling in shock.
 
“You SURE there should be this many zeros on the end of this?”
 
“Yep. And This is the stipend that trust pays to Kylie.” Another piece of paper, another unrealistic number. “So if that bitch ever tries to hit you up for cash, I want you to laugh as hard as you fuckin’ can at her until you run out of breath.”
 
“Jesus Frank” I exclaimed, surprised at his vehemence, “I’m the one who got left here.”
 
“Just trying to ram it home, mate, that’s all. I know you, and I know what she meant to you. The rest of us have had… more time to come to terms with it.”
 
“Well they’re taken care of. That’s the main thing.” I sigh. “So what about AOD? When can I get back to wor…”
 
“That’s unfortunately not on the cards.” Jeff interrupted.
 
“Fuck that!” I yelled. “That’s MY baby! I built that company up from nothing!”
 
“And then your shareholders voted to float her. They couldn’t deal with a placeholder any more, making do with bits and peices scavenged from your work-in-progress files like some theologian pulling meaning from a bible. So they floated her, voted in a CEO, and have been topping the Fortune 500 ever since. Don’t worry, you’re still listed as ‘Founder’, though that doesn’t mean much more than a plaque on the wall… Oh, and some very lucrative patent licenses. Your accounts have been churning along on median yield investments, nothing too spectacular, the wife wanted me to go for broke, but I didn’t feel right playing hardball with my best friend’s money and…”
 
“Spit it out Frank, what are you dancing around.”
 
“Take all the fun out of it…” Frank sighed, writing another figure on the paper and sliding it forward. My hands shook as I looked at the figure.
 
“You’re serious.”
 
“Dead serious mate.”
 
“Fuck… Get into a car accident, wake up fifteen years later with your life in tatters, the world invaded by monsters and a bank account with an utterly ridiculous amount of money in it… Yes please Frank I think I will have another one of those.”
 
“Go easy Uncle Mike… You’ve just come out of hospital after all.” Ethan chuckled.
 
I took a long drink, staring at the brown spirit within the glass.
 
“Ethan, do you remember when you built the time machine out of those boxes and we went into the future to shoot robots?” I muse
 
Ethan frowned. “Yeah… Yeah I think I was about eight?”
 
“Well take it from me. Time travel’s a fucking whore of a thing.”
 
 
“So I’ve confirmed this morning, your home nurse will be meeting you there at your new place this evening.” Ethan remarked, his voice tinny over the speaker on my new ‘PC’.
 
“For God’s sake Ethan, I’ve got a bung leg, I’m not a vegetable.” I object
 
“And what happens when I come over to find you dead on the floor after trying to find a new life at the bottom of a bottle, Uncle Mike? Especially when I spent so much of your money SAVING your ass.” Ethan spat. “She’s not there to wipe your chin, she’s a physiotherapist, personal trainer, nutritionist, as well as a trained counselor.”
 
“You know you keep making hints as to something you did being less than standard to bring me back Ethan.” I remark, frowning at the glowing display. “I’m not going to wake up with a hankering for brains or something, am I?”
 
“It was my predecessor’s idea, I was actually studying under him at medical school.” Ethan began “Did we tell you about the Mamono obsession with ‘spirit energy?”
 
“Yeah, sounded like a bad Crowley gag.” I answered.
 
“Well welcome to the most recent revelation to turn medicine on its fuckin’ ear, Uncle Mike, It’s real.”
 
“Well someone better get started on the apology letters to all the bloody faith healers and swamis and shit then.” I snicker.
 
“Be serious, they were comparable like you can call a toddler with a plastic hammer a master builder.” Ethan snorted. “But it’s what healed you, what brought you back. You were on life support for four years. Your brain activity was flatlined. Technically the only thing keeping your heart going was the machines. But Dr Hopkins had been studying a species of Mamono called ‘Alarune’, a plantlike species which attracts in a similar method to flowers… Has something of a symbiotic relationship with the insectile species…”
 
“You’re drifting, Doctor.” I chided
 
“Sorry! Sorry… Anyway, Dr Hopkins had an idea. The Alarune’s nectar had the expected euphoric and aphrodisiac effects, but one thing he noticed in testing was a hyper-stimulation of this newly discovered ‘spirit energy’. Now Mamono had been demonstrating abilities well within the realm of what we would call ‘magical’, so he thinks ‘What the hell, can’t do any harm.’
 
“So he shot me full of plant juice.” I clarified.
 
“A highly specialized and distilled extract, yes. And it worked.” Ethan exclaimed “You started healing at an accelerated rate, your brain functions started to come back, reflex responses were improving…”
 
“That took fifteen years?” I demand incredulously
 
“Things got… Complicated. The Treaties of Seattle were signed in twenty-five which essentially put Mamono on an equal legal footing with Humans. That, combined with some very vague legislation concerning stem cells made it… tricky to continue the treatment, even after I finished my residency and took over Dr Hopkins’ role.” Ethan admitted reluctantly. “But it was enough. When Kylie made the decision to terminate the machines, you were already stable enough to survive without them. From there all we could do was to rely on conventional medicine… and pray.”
 
“Shit… Well…” I mumbled, somewhat overwhelmed. “Thanks… I guess.”
 
“You’re family, Uncle Mike. We weren’t going to let you go without a fight. Anyway, I’ve got other patients to see. I’ll speak to you later.”
 
“Yeah, seeya Ethan.” I murmur absently, disconnecting the call.
 
I wandered aimlessly around the house, plastic trash bag in hand. From how it had been explained to me, this house was purchased by Frank after the divorce on my behalf. Kylie didn’t want the old place, and Frank figured I wouldn’t either, if I ever woke up. So personal effects were put in storage, and brought out and set up once news had reached him that I was awake again. There was just one problem… Whoever had set things up was either completely without empathy, or frighteningly retarded. There were pictures of me and Kylie strewn all over the house. My emotions were raw enough as it was without having a reminder of what I’d lost hit me every time I turned around.
 
Still, it was an effort to force all those happy, smiling, younger depictions of us into the trash. I paused at one framed picture, taken not long after Stevey was born, clearly. I was asleep on the couch, my baby son sleeping angelically atop my chest. I paused, looking at it, before replacing it, face down on the shelf.
 
“Not yet, Stevey… I’m not ready to throw you away yet.” I heard myself murmur. The bag in my hand was surprisingly weighty, so I hobbled outside to put it in the trash.
 
“FREAK!” I heard a young male voice decry from somewhere behind me. His voice full of scorn.
 
“Yeah, keep running, weirdo!” Another decried. I heard the rhythmic crunching impact of shoes on gravel, then a beat and a muffled impact as the runner tripped and fell onto my front lawn.
 
I closed the bin lid and turned around. A young girl lay sobbing with exhaustion and fear on my lawn, her hair a lustrous blue, shot through with electric highlights of a lighter shade. Her short, pointed ears lay flat back against her skull, and her short tail was tucked under her, its fur the same colour as her hair.
 
Two boys came puffing from the treeline, laughing as they saw her.
 
“Caught you now freak!” One laughed triumphantly
 
“We’ll show you…” The other panted.
 
The girl raised her head and looked at them, a weird light in her eyes. The hair on my arms stood on end as the very air seemed to crackle.
 
Yeah nah, fuck this.
 
“OI CUNTS!” I roared, hobbling as fast as my leg would carry me towards the girl.
 
The two boys snapped their heads up, looking at me with surprise.
 
“I thought you said this place was empty!” One hissed.
 
“It was!” the other answered, before squaring himself up and glaring at me. “You squatting here old man? You’d better not mess with me, my dad’s a cop!”
 
“Oh yeah?” I muttered, before brandishing my walking stick at the boys. “Seems I’ve found the little cunts who were tagging up my walls… So call yer fuckin’ father, and we’ll see how much ‘sorry’ I can beat into you before he gets here.”
 
“Y-you can’t do that!” The boy cried, his eyes full of trepidation.
 
“You’re on my land, you shitmouse. I can do whatever I like.” I answer with a death’s head grin.
 
At that, the boys scattered, fleeing back towards the main road. I let out a breath, chuckling slightly. ‘Nasty old cunt’ had its perks. With a grunt, I knelt down next to the girl.
 
“You alright there?” I asked gently
 
“Don’t touch me!” She hissed, curling into herself
 
“Easy kid, I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to know that you’re alrigh…” I rested a hand on her shoulder and then something kicked me. Hard…
 
…When I came to, the girl was bending over me, panic in her eyes.
 
“Come on mister! Wake up! Oh please don’t be dead! I didn’t mean it, I warned you!” she babbled, what looked like tiny electric sparks playing in the corner of her eyes.
 
“Sparks…” I murmured dumbly as my brain pulled itself together.
 
“How did you know my name?” The girl demanded, pushing herself away from me and glaring at me suspiciously.
 
“What?”
 
“Huh?”
 
I shook my head, leaning heavily on my stick as I pulled myself upright. “I missed something there… What’s the issue?”
 
“My name, how did you know it?”
 
I blinked. “I don’t… When did I say your name?”
 
“You called me Sparks. Everybody calls me sparks except…” the blue-haired girl turned away slightly, cutting the sentence off, but not before I saw the dull pain in her eyes.
 
“Oh. Really… Huh… No, I meant the ones in your eyes… Hehe… that’s a funny coincidence.” I chuckled, “Glad to meet you then, Sparks. I’m Michael.” I smiled, before wincing as I felt tightness in my chest.
 
“Hey mister you don’t look too good… Do you want me to call a doctor or something?”
 
“Just help me inside, if you could. I just need to sit down.” I gasped, feeling intensely weary.
 
She took my arm hesitantly, looking at me with slight suspicion. “You’re not some pervert, are ya?”
 
“Would it matter if I was? I’m pretty sure we started over there.” I chuckle, pointing to a spot a good few meters away. “What the hell was that?”
 
“I’m a Raiju.” She answered, as if that should explain everything.
 
“Uh huh… and that means…” I prompted, pausing as she opened the door for me.
 
“What, are you like, brain damaged or something?”
 
“Charming” I chuckle. “Coma, actually.”
 
“No way…”
 
“Way.”
 
‘Sparks’ seemed to ponder that. “OHMYMAOU!” She squealed, pointing at me. “You’re Michael Midas!”
 
I sank into a chair with a sigh, feeling my heartrate return to normal. “I have no idea what that is.”
 
“Oh come ooooonnnnnn” She moaned. “They made a movie about you and everything! Ludvig Skarsgard played you!”
 
“Now I know you have to be thinking of someone else.” I laughed.
 
“Nah, c’mon… your secret’s totally safe with me!” She wheedled, excitement playing with the shimmering sparks in her eyes.
 
“No, seriously. Michael Midas? What kind of egotist would call themselves that?”
 
“Well I mean of course that’s not your REAL name.” Sparks sighed, rolling her eyes expressively. “Your real surname’s An… Ander… Oh Maou I’m so bad at remembering…”
 
I swallowed in a throat suddenly dry. “J-just out of curiosity. How did the movie go?”
 
“Well it was about how Michael Midas bought this company with this really cute nerd guy whose name I can’t remember and together they made PCs but like these other big companies and stuff were all jealous because their PCs were like, totally more better than theirs…”
 
I leaned back in the chair as her adolescent babble meandered around the dramatized story that was unmistakably my life
 
“…and then for some reason these thugs show up while he’s in the shower at the gym which makes no sense because he’s rich as fuck and could afford locks but I don’t care because Ludvig is like SOOOO hot and he’s totally naked and stuff…”
 
“That never happened.” I blurt without thinking. Sparks gives a squeal of unabashed delight.
 
“I KNEW it was you! I knew it!”
 
“Yeah well, keep it under your hat.”
 
Sparks frowns slightly “I don’t’ wear hats, messes with my hair.”
 
“It’s a metaphor. Bloody hell, what do they teach at these schools?” I chuckled.
 
“Music.” Sparks answered simply.
 
“You’re a literal sort, aren’t ya?” I grumble. Sparks grins infectiously.
 
“Can I have a drink?” She asks. “Running away from those alps-in-training was hard work.”
 
I gesture to the kitchen. “Right through there, help yourself. Grab me a beer while you’re there.” The young Raiju zips from view and I hear the fridge door opening.
 
“Can I have one?” Sparks voice echoes from the kitchen
 
“Are you eighteen?”
 
“…no”
 
“Then there’s your answer. I should have a few cans of soda in there.”
 
“You’re lucky I like ginger beer.” Sparks mumbles in a mock pout, throwing the bottle nonchalantly to me and cracking her soda.
 
“Alps-in-training?” I ask, bemused.
 
Sparks leans forward, peering at me. “You weren’t kidding about the coma thing, huh. I thought it was just like a weird celebrity mystery thing.”
 
“I’m hardly a celebrity.” I snicker, as an authoritative knock sounds at the door.
 
“Police. Open up.” A voice orders.
 
“The little shit wasn’t kidding.” I grumble, leaning on my stick as I stand and hobble to the door. Opening it, I look at the two police officers standing on the threshold.
 
“Oh… We, uh… Weren’t expecting…” One officer mutters, seeing the furnished nature of the house behind me and my own lack of looking like a crazy homeless person.
 
“You were expecting a squatter.” I answer perfunctorily. “Do you usually act so swiftly on the testimony of a couple of juvenile delinquents?”
 
“Now wait…” One of the officers objects.
 
“Well.” I interrupt. “Now I know who daddy is.”
 
“See here…” The officer hisses indignantly
 
“No. Those two cretins had chased a poor girl to exhaustion, and had the temerity to THREATEN me on my own property. They should be lucky I didn’t flog them all the way back to the road.”
 
Angry old man was turning out to be so much fun.
 
“Now look sir…” The second officer interjects. “Clearly you’re human, but that ‘Poor girl’, well she’s not, and her kind is dangerous. Can you REALLY believe what…” He wheedled.
 
“Maybe its senility setting in early, but I seem to remember a little thing called the “Seattle Treaty” which grants Mamono equal rights with Humans. Or were we busy harassing soccer mums on that day of the academy, constable?” I grin.
 
“I’m of half a mind to bring you down to the station, mate.” The first officer grunts, grabbing me by the arm.
 
I look down at the hand and back over my shoulder where Sparks was timidly peeping around the corner. Clearly she didn’t expect anything good from them, possibly she’d had a run in with these two before. My brain worked frantically… Yes.
 
“Go right ahead. But you might want to look up who’s supposed to be living here. If that doesn’t give you pause, look up who my legal representation is. You REALLY want to be right about this, officer.”
 
“Oh yeah, who are you supposed to be then?” The second officer snickered
 
“Does the name “Midas” ring any bells?”
 
“No shit…” The first officer gasped, releasing my arm as if it was white hot “…Did you see the news? They said he had woken up.”
 
“Come on Kevin, this guy’s clearly just some clown on the tail end of his midlife crisis.” The second officer scoffed
 
“Go look it up.” I interjected, still smiling evenly. “I’m not going anywhere.”
 
“Mr Anderson?” A female voice interrupted. “Is everything alright?”
 
I looked over to see a curvaceous woman standing on the gravel below my porch, her cinnamon hair tied back in a thick ponytail, two ivory horns protruding from her head and a slender, bovine tail lashing around digitigrade hooves, cuffed in fur which matched her hair.
 
“Just fine. I was just THANKING these officers for their diligence in attending after those two delinquents invaded my property. But I’m afraid I’ve taken up too much of their time already, and they really MUST be going. Thank you SO much again officers. Drive safe now.”
 
Defeated, the two police officers stalked back to their car, peeling aggressively out of my gravel drive and back onto the road.
 
“Did you want me to call Mr Naylor?” The woman asked, brows furrowed with concern.
 
“Why bother? They know they’re out of their depth. Probably spend their days bullying pizza delivery drivers for having peeling tint. Plus, do you really think there’d be a record of them being here?” I answered, before turning to look at her fully.
 
“Well. So you’re this ‘Home Nurse?’ I wasn’t expecting someone so…”
 
“So What?” The woman interjected defensively, her eyes narrowing.
 
“I was going to go with ‘Cute’ but if you’re going to start us out on THAT footing…” I drawled.
 
“Oh you are a bad man.” The nurse chuckled, blushing slightly.
 
“Guilty. And please, if you’re going to be bossing me around, call me Michael.”
 
“Pleased to meet you Michael. I’m…”
 
“Miss SALLY?!” Came an incredulous exclamation from inside.
 
“Sparks! What on earth are you doing here?” The nurse… Sally gasped with surprise.
 
The young Raiju stepped around me, the hair on my arms raising as she passed.
 
“So this was the ‘Big Job’. This is why you l-left…” She growled, trailing off into a quiet sob.
 
“Sparks, that’s not…” I began, frowning
 
“And you!” Sparks spat, electricity arcing and snapping through her hair. “I should have KNOWN you were the kind of old perv who’d lure a Boobtaur into your web.”
 
“Seraphina! You stop that at once!” Sally barked authoritatively. Sparks turned towards her with instinctive obedience. Her eyes were a tumult of shame, guilt, and sorrow.
 
“That is a VERY hurtful name!”
 
“I’m sorry… I just…” Sparks sobbed, before putting her hands over her face and bursting into tears. Wordlessly, Sally went to her, holding the crying girl gently to her ample bosom, suppressing a pained wince as she stroked her arcing, crackling hair.
 
 
“So you’re looking after Mr Midas?” Sparks clarified.
 
“Please Sparks, its Michael. I hate that nickname already.” I groaned.
 
“Heehee…” Sparks chuckled smugly. “…I’m on a first name basis with a famous person.”
 
“Yeah well keep it hush, willya? I don’t need the bloody media setting up a tent city on me bloody lawn.” I grumble.
 
“…but yes.” Sally clarified, crossing a digitigrade leg over the other, her broad thighs whispering as they brushed across each other. “I’m here as Michael’s nurse. It’s more his reference than him I’m after.” She glanced at me slightly bashfully. “Er, no offence.”
 
“None taken, It’d make a welcome change.” I laugh. Sally flicked a studying look at me, an involuntary smile on her lips.
 
“Why did you leave the Academy to be a nurse though?” Sparks demanded “You were my best teacher…”
 
“I was only on contract there for another three months, Sparks, and then I would have had to leave anyway.” She leaned over, hugging the girl to her, the Raiju seeming slightly dwarfed by Sally’s ample curves. “I’m sorry little thunderbug… But sometimes we don’t get a choice in the matter.”
 
“I hear that…” I murmured, drinking absently from a bottle of beer. “Ah crap. It’s getting late. Did you want me to call your parents, Sparks?”
 
The Raiju looked at me, that distant, dull pain in her eyes again. “I wish you could… but…”
 
“Her parents passed away a few years ago.” Sally explained gently, giving the Raiju another brief hug. “I looked out for her as best I could, but I knew eventually I’d have to move on. I’m sure the other teachers have been as diligent tho…”
 
“They’re a bunch of cunts!” Sparks burst hotly, the flashing lightning back in her eyes.
 
“Seraphina Marie!” Sally exclaimed, “I will NOT have such language from you, young lady!”
 
“Much as I agree with the fuckin’ language…” I began.
 
Sally stared nonplussed at me. “Not funny Michael.”
 
I flashed her a cheeky grin “…Kinda interested to hear WHY Sparks is saying that her teachers are a bunch of see-you-next-Tuesdays.”
 
“They’re so INSIPID. They KNOW that Dan and Robbo are from Order families, yet they brush off every time they chase me as ‘Oh, they’re just trying to get a rise out of you.”
 
“Nice to know some things haven’t changed.” I mutter.
 
“Right?!” Sparks exclaims, pointing at me and nodding vehemently. “But then when I call the lightning to try and just get them to STOP, it’s ‘muh endangerment’ and ‘muh self-control’ and blah bloody blah. It sucks. I hate it.”
 
“What’s Order?” I ask
 
“You’re kidding.” Sparks declares with a level stare.
 
“Coma.” I reply sweetly.
 
“Oh. Yeah…Sorry, I forgot…”
 
“The Order of Ilias…” Sally begins “Is a quasi-religious hate group dedicated to terrorizing Mamono.”
 
“Quasi-religious eh? What, Christian? Muslim?”
 
Sparks blinks at me “Weren’t you listening? They’re Ilias-worshippers.”
 
“I’ve never even heard of Ilias…” I murmur, frowning in thought
 
“Lucky you.” Sally mutters. “You are right though. I should call the school and let them know she’s alright… Have you got a handset? Earpeices and I don’t really work.”
 
She gestures to one of her large, floppy ears, twitching slightly below her horns.
 
“Say no more.” I chuckle, “It’s in the drawer just there.”
 
Sally smiles her thanks, tapping at her wrist and holding the handset briefly to it, the device making a discrete ‘beep’ as it pairs. Punching a number, she raises the handset to her head.
 
“Hi, is that Trish? Yeah it’s Sally. Yes that’s right… I’m good hun, thank you… Uh huh… No, no quite well, but what I’m actually calling about is one of the students… Yep… Yes it is actually… Uh huh. Seraphina Marie… there was a bit of an incident and she’s…”
 
Sally frowns, alarm beginning to creep into her eyes.
 
“B-but that can’t be right, surely… No I understand but… Now just a bloody minu… No… Well I certainly hope they feel vindicated, because I WILL be contacting the Embassy first thing in the morning!”
 
She jams a thumb viciously against the hang-up button. “Ilian Cunt”. She hisses.
 
“Miss SALLY!” Sparks gasps.
 
“I’m sorry Sparks. I shouldn’t let my temper get the better of me.” Sally apologizes, taking a deep breath. “But I have some bad news. They’ve terminated your scholarship.”
 
“W-Why?” Sparks cries
 
“Trish… Mrs Delaraine says that it’s because of all the fights.”
 
“B-but that’s not my FAULT!” Sparks wails “T-they’re always trying to h-hurt me!”
 
“I know, thunderbug, I know. Now they managed to contact the Embassy, who say they can foster you with a family over in Zipangu…”
 
“I-I was getting so GOOD!” Sparks sobs “And I don’t know how to s-speak Zipangan!”
 
My hands were shaking. Hang it. This was not bloody fair.
 
“What school was this?” I demand
 
“DeLonguefeld Grammar School…” Sally answered “…But you won’t have any luck there, the decision came down from…”
 
“Nah fuck their noise, I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire…” I reply dismissively “You were there on a Scholarship though, right Sparks?”
 
The Raiju sniffed, nodding. “For M-music…”
 
“Music eh?” I smile. I knew just the place. Tapping my wrist, I brought up Frank’s number.
 
“Miss me already, you deviant?” Frank’s deep, resonant voice sounded in my ear.
 
“Hardly. Why didn’t you tell me I was a movie?”
 
“That overhyped girl-porn flick? Didn’t even break 100 mil. Almost not worth the time chasing them for royalties.”
 
“Funny. Listen, I want you to call up Rasmussen Academy. Ask them how big a donation it will take to open up a spot for… A friend.”
 
A pause from Frank. “Mike, they’re pretty exclusive, it won’t be cheap even if they’re willing.”
 
“Oh, they’ll be willing…”
 
Heart in my throat… memories of going over schools with Kylie, little Stevey babbling and beautiful in his high chair… hold it together Mike.
 
“Alright mate. I’ll call them first thing in the morning.” Frank assured.
 
“Thanks mate, hope I didn’t interrupt dinner.”
 
“Not a problem, have a good night.”
 
A ‘bip’ as the call terminated. Sparks and Sally were looking at me wide-eyed.
 
“Michael… Rasmussen Academy… that’s…” Sally gasped
 
“I know.”
 
“Y-you mean it, Mike?” Sparks whimpered.
 
“On one condition.”
 
Sparks looked at me suspiciously “You’re not going to make me do something dirty are you?”
 
I blinked “What? God, no! What’s wrong with you?”
 
“Gotcha.” Sparks grinned “So what’s the condition?”
 
“Your first concert. I get front-row seats.” I held my hand out to the young Raiju.
 
“Deal.” Sparks declared, putting her tiny hand in mine and pumping it once before throwing her arms around me.
 
“Thank you… Thank you so much…” She whispered in my ear.
 

“M-my pleasure.” I replied… hesitantly returning her innocent embrace.

Chapter 2

“Demon!” I hissed

“Oh shut up.” The Horned Monstrosity atop me drawled, pushing at my leg as she moved me to her desires.

“Get thee behind me, Satan!”

“Really?” My tormentor chuckled

I gave a pained groan, feeling my muscles stretch as she pushed at my injured leg.

“Fuuuuuuck.” I hissed through clenched teeth. “You’re an assassin aren’t you? Sent back through time to torture me to death.”

“Wouldn’t it be ‘forward’ through time now, all things considered?” she jested, tail lashing lazily behind her.

“Don’t tease the coma patient.”

“The coma patient should stop being such a little bitch.”

“Worst. Holstaur. Ever.” I gasped, moaning involuntarily as Sally stood up, taking the pressure off my leg.

“Woah… Getting personal there Mike.” She chuckled. “Now get up.”

I clambered to my feet, moaning as my muscles protested.

“What was that about?” Sally asked as she moved through ‘cool down’ stretches.

“Sorry, did I cross the line?”

“Little bit, yeah.” Sally admitted, a slight pain in her eyes

“I must be getting better” I chuckled “I thought you had loosened my damn jaw when I dropped ‘Boobtaur’ the other week.”

“That was just unexpected. I wasn’t… ‘Used to the banter’ as it were.”

“Well permit an old man to apologi…”

“You’re forty-seven.”

“You wha?” I grunt in confusion.

“You’re forty-seven, Mike, you’re not ‘old’…” Sally chided “And I wish you’d stop putting yourself down like you are. You’re in remarkably good shape for a man who’s just spent fifteen years in a coma. Most people in that situation would be in a wheelchair for years.”

“Yeah well, this Not-so-old-under-advisement-from-nursey Man wants to apologise for the ‘Worst Holstaur’ dig.” I say jovially yet sincerely, wincing slightly as I hear a ‘pop’ from my shoulder as I slowly rotate my arms.

“Ooh, that one sounded good. What I’m interested in is WHY you said it, to be honest.” Sally enquired.

“Fucking hell, and here’s the counsellor. Do you change the hats real quick or do you just wear them all the time?” I grumble.

Sally smirked. “Bit of both, now, spill. I won’t forgive you until you do.”

“Stuff like that.” I note between deep breaths, mirroring Sally’s movements as we perform some weird hippie breathing exercise. “I’ve been reading. Not just about Holstauri, about Mamono in general. Fifteen years to catch up on, remember?”

“Don’t dodge the question.” Sally chided.

“Well, Holstauri are supposed to be all doting and caring and motherly and shit. You set upon me like a damn drill sergeant and you’ve never ONCE baked me a pie.”

“Is this interest in motherly behaviour springing from what you’ve got planned for this afternoon?”

I pause, suddenly out of energy. “…Probably” I admit, a worm of resentment in my guts at the industrial laser she used in place of psychological tools.

“I forgive you.” Sally says simply. “And to respond, the information on Holstauri would probably look a bit different if you humans ever studied ones older than their early twenties.”

“I don’t follow.” I admit

“Let’s just say disappointment has a way of taking the sparkling filter off the world, and leave it at that. Now drink up.” Sally orders, handing me a tall glass.

“Honestly Sally.” I sigh, pausing to neck the frosty glass. “If you’re going for placebo therapy I don’t see why you don’t at least change the flavour.”

“Who says it’s placebo? And what’s wrong with the flavour?” Her eyebrows furrowing dangerously.

“Nothing! Nothing at all, it’s damn good milk… but it’s still just milk.”

“So? It’s good for you. Now go shower. Tem will be here to pick you up in half an hour, remember?”

“I can drive myself you know.” I grumble.

“Don’t be mean, she hasn’t gotten to take you anywhere in a fortnight and she’s feeling very neglected.” Sally retorts.

“Fine… fine…” I concede, heading towards my bathroom.

Someone had clearly assumed that I’d be a hell of a lot less mobile if… when I woke up, so my bathroom was palatial, almost opulently so. A large jaccuzi tub, and a spacious shower with not one, not two, but three showerheads all electronically controlled. I set all of them to blast, and soaked under the hot triple stream which lathed my body.

I looked myself over. Sally wasn’t completely wrong, my body still showed the ravages of serious trauma and the wasting of fifteen years of forced immobility, but muscle and flesh was returning rapidly, along with, (a testament to Sally’s skills as a dietician) very little fat, lending me a lean, wiry look which I was growing quite partial to.

Aware of the time constraints, I shut off the shower and dried myself, crossing into my room to get changed. I decided on a semi-formal number, a good shirt, a sports jacket and dress pants. I went to attach the cuffs and noticed no buttons, to my irritation. I hunted through my accessories for cufflinks, coming up empty.

“Fuck. Sally’s room.” I grunt. “Fucking retard cunt movers…”

Again, like the prevalence of photos featuring myself and my now-ex-wife… A pause as the memory stings… the placement of some things in the house just defied basic logic. I was finding probably twenty percent of anything I owned in random rooms throughout the house, but most frequently in the room now occupied by my home nurse, counsellor, and (To my initial objection) cook.

I padded up the hallway, barefoot, loose cuffs luffing gently as I moved. Sally’s door was open halfway, and I tapped my knuckle against it politely before sticking my head in.

“You here Sally?” I called, scanning the room. No answer. I cross to the bedside table which doesn’t have her odds and sods all over it, no doubt if the cufflinks were in the other, she’d have brought them to me by now. Rummaging through the drawer I find the box of cufflinks sitting atop a neatly folded pile of pocket squares. With an ‘aha’ of triumph, I hold them aloft, turning…

…And freezing as I am confronted with a naked Sally, equally frozen in the act of towelling her hair as she emerged from the en suite bathroom, her brown eyes wide with shock.

“Sorry. Door was open… I… Cufflinks… Sorry… Um… Going… sorry… Yeah.”

I rush from the room, reminding myself to hire a cleaner to pick up all the spaghetti I just spilled on the floor. Reeeeeal cool Michael. Real cool. At least there was one thing I knew now that I didn’t know before and to be honest, was mildly curious about, I thought to myself as I fastened my cuffs and headed out the door.

I now knew what Sally was packing under those sweats and polos, and… Phwoar.

“Bloody reporters.” I grumble.

“Would Sir like One to discourage them from entering should One see them on the property again?” Tem, my driver asked in that self-effacing manner of hers.

I chuckle “No, no it’s fine. Besides, we wouldn’t want you to get done for assault. Who’d drive my ass home when I got too drunk then?”

“Sir raises a good point. One would be less useful to Sir if One was incarcerated.” Tem admitted.

“Sally was right, wasn’t she?” I murmured.

“Sir?” Tem enquired, looking briefly at me in the rear view with her gemlike eyes.

“Sorry Tem, I’m just trying to get a handle on this. Sally said you were feeling a bit neglected because I’d been driving myself more. Is that a Golem thing?”

“One is a Construct, Sir. Not a Golem. One is not Jewish.” Tem corrected, a note of slight umbrage in her voice.

“Didn’t mean any disrespect, sorry.”

“Sir was unaware, Sir does not need to apologise.” Tem flashed me another glance, a small smile on her face. “But One has been feeling… less useful of late, one must admit.”

“You get paid regardless Tem, I’m afraid I’m still not following.”

Tem paused, seeming to look at me for a longer period this time. “Is Sir familiar with ‘Thomas the Tank Engine?”

I laugh involuntarily. “Oh shit yeah. That used to be my favourite show as a kid.”

“One also enjoys it. Thomas has his own likes, dislikes, dreams… But overall is the desire to be useful. If One is not useful, One feels like One is without purpose.”

“That’s Thomas alright…” I admit “But you’re saying Constructs feel the same way too?”

“Reverend Awdry was a very insightful man. One wonders if he may have been a Builder of Constructs in life.”

“I don’t think so, sorry Tem. Still. It’s good that you’ve found something to relate to, yeh?”

“One agrees. Thank you, Sir.” Tem said with a note of gratitude.

“Whyssat?”

“Sir is not mean, nor does Sir place unrealistic expectations upon One. One… enjoys being useful for Sir.” Tem admitted, and I could see a slight blush on her porcelain cheeks.

“Glad to have you around too, Tem.” I offer sincerely. I look out the window, seeing our destination approach, my guts tightened with anticipation.

“Here we go…” I breathed, gripping the flowers in my hand.

“Two-twenty-three, two-twenty-four…” I murmur, looking at the painted numbers on the lots. Ah. There. Two-twenty-five. I step carefully onto the manicured lawn, scanning the headstones which dotted this lot of the graveyard… There it was. With a heavy heart, I approached the twin stones, careful not to walk over any other graves.

‘Here Lieth Gregory Miles Anderson and Vanessa Sophia Anderson.’ The elaborate engraving read, above a stylized cruciform carving. In simpler letters below it was engraved their epitaph.

‘We’re heading home now, We’ll leave the porch light on for you.’

I chuckled helplessly, tears in my eyes as I laid the flowers on the twin grave. That simple, welcoming faith that they had effortlessly displayed their whole life. A life of generosity, hard work and honesty.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I wish I could have said goodbye properly.” I murmur, the headstone blurry through my tears.

“Not there.” A voice intruded behind me.

I turned, to see an… odd figure behind me. It was clothed in a flowing, black garment which hung from a leaden torque about its neck. Its skin was slate grey, its hair a similar lustreless hue, but the eyes which seemed to look through me with an unreadable expression were a luminous violet.

“Pardon?” I asked, my brows furrowing in confusion.

“Who you’re talking to.” The figure answered. Its voice soft and feminine, yet… echoing, emotionless. “They’re not there.”

“The headstone disagrees and who the hell are you?” I demand, confusion giving way to anger.

“They have gone, through the mists. Hearts light against the feather on the Scales of Ma’at.”

“Is this some new form of fucking evangelism or something? Accosting people trying to pay their fucking respects?” My eyes narrowed “Is this the fucking ‘Ilias’ thing people keep warning me to keep away from?”

“WHAT?!” The grey woman hissed, levitating off the ground, her violet eyes blazing with eldritch energy and an unfelt wind whipping at her flowing garment. Suddenly I felt cold. Cold, and very, very afraid.

“Melina no!” I heard a voice shriek, and a blur of blue sprang between me and the object of my destruction. “He didn’t mean it! He didn’t know!” I blinked, to see Sparks, the young Raiju who I had met some weeks beforehand, holding up her hands beseechingly to the leaden-skinned woman who still glared at me with death in her eyes. Sparks turned to me, gripping me by the arms.

“Never, NEVER accuse a Lich of being Ilian. You could have died, or worse!” She ordered, her eyes wide and her lip quivering slightly. “Maou dammit, you owe her like the biggest damn apology.”

My mouth works as I struggle to process this burst of new information. “I’m… Very, very sorry, Ma’am.” I manage to work out. “I fear you caught me at something of a vulnerable point. My sincerest apologies for any insult.”

Melina’s eyes narrowed, and she peered at me, as if ‘seeing’ me properly for the first time.

“You. You opened the door but never went through it.” She murmured enigmatically. “She was very frustrated.”

“She? Who, Sparks?” I queried, confused.

“No.” Melina said simply, before turning and floating away.

Sparks threw her arms around me, and I stood there in shock as the adolescent Raiju clung to me in silence for a moment.

“I really thought you were in trouble there.” She sniffed.

“Ok three things. One, Hello Sparks.” I begin, ruffling her hair.

“Hi.” Sparks responded with a small grin.

“Two, what are you doing here?”

“Same thing as you. My mum and dad are over there.” She explains, pointing to the adjacent lot.

“Ah. Three, What… just… what?” I utter, looking to where the Lich was floating towards an elaborate mausoleum in the middle of the grounds.

“Melina’s a Lich. Undead. She kind of ‘lives’ here, but she mostly seems to spend her time calming restless ghosts and the like, comforting people who are grieving, that sort of thing. She helped me out a lot when… well… at first, you know?”

“So she was really trying to make me feel better… I’m a fucking cunt.”

Sparks nods gravely “Yeah, It’s OK though, I think. If she didn’t forgive you… well… you wouldn’t be here anymore.”

A small hand reaches up, affixing itself to mine, gripping tightly as if afraid of losing contact.

“That… Would really bother you, wouldn’t it?” I murmur.

Sparks shuffles her feet bashfully “W-well you’ve been really nice to me and…”

“I’d miss you too, thunderbug.” I chuckle, unconsciously using Sally’s nickname for the young Raiju. “So. As reward for saving my stupid ass, ice cream?”

“There had better be some serious chocolate sauce, Michael.” Sparks said seriously as we walked hand-in-hand back to where Tem waited with the car.

“That is a goddamn monstrosity.” I declared, gesturing with my spoon at the gargantuan desert which sat in front of Sparks as she eyed it avariciously.

“Yep” Sparks admitted.

“And you’re going to eat the whole thing.”

Sparks buried a spoon into the sludge of chocolate sauce, nuts, and marshmallows. “Yep”

“You’re going to be horribly sick.”

“Probably” the Raiju grunted from around a mouthful.

I took a spoonful of my rather comparatively plain ice cream, chuckling to myself as I watched Sparks gorge herself on the massive sundae.
“I was thinking…” I mused

“S’dangerous.” Sparks mumbled

“Oi!” I burst in mock outrage. “When did you start being the smartass?”

Sparks flicked me a chocolate-covered grin before returning to her feast.

“…Melina.” I continued “Who did she mean when she said that ‘She’ was frustrated?”

Sparks swallowed, taking a sip of lemonade “Her Goddess.”

“And that’s Maou, right?”

Sparks snorted. “No. Honestly Mike I don’t know why you’re having such trouble with this.”

“Humor me.” I mused. “What’s the difference?”

“Humans…” Sparks groaned, rolling her eyes. “Maou’s like… bugger me it’s hard to explain.”

“Language.” I chided.

“You swear all the time!” Sparks objected loudly

“I’m old and rich.” I smirked. “I can get away with that shit.”

“Bloody unfair.” Sparks mumbled, pondering the remains of her massive sundae and looking at a large drinking straw.

“Get used to it. You were saying?”

Sparks took the drinking straw, jamming it into the sundae and sucking valiantly, her cheeks pulling in as she tried in vain to draw the chocolate topping up the straw. “Damn. I really thought it would work…” She muttered. “Ok. So. In Human terms, Maou’s like if Jesus Christ, King Arthur and Joan of Arc had a threesome, Maou would be the uncomfortable love child.”

“You’re fifteen, for crying out loud, Sparks!” I admonish, frowning slightly

“And I know where babies come from. Stop being such a prude, do you want to hear the story or not?”

“Alright alright… So what’s the deal?”

“Well, the way the legend goes, We were all mindless savages until Maou overthrew Her Father, Abbadon, and gave us the power to reason. Taught us how to love, and commanded us to act always in love, for ‘Such is the way of the purest light of divinity’, or something like that.”

“Sounds a lot like Christianity, sans trees and apples and such.” I chuckle.

“Yeah, probably why the churches are so confused by us.” Sparks snickered, assaulting the sundae again with dual-wielded spoons. “You Humans seem to have a lot of legends with us in them that we don’t… remember for some reason. The Mamono who say they do end up… weird.”

“Ethan said something similar about a condition some humans have. ‘Bender’s Disorder’ or something.”

“Guess we’ve even got crazy in common huh.” Sparks chuckled.

“Course that whole ‘Queen of Hell’ thing isn’t helping your cause any.”

Sparks snorted “That’s OLD Hell. Abbadon Hell. The difference between your Heaven and ours is that our ‘God’ hates us.”

“Ilias.” I sigh, the pieces finally clicking together.

“Yep. S’why Melina got so pissy. It’d be like you accusing a priest of worshipping your ‘Devil’.”

“…And why the Ilias mythology’s so popular amongst Anti-Mamono groups.”

“Pretty much, yeah.” Sparks answered, carefully spooning the remains into a pile.

“You don’t have to finish it if you’re full”

“I’m planning my attack.” Sparks replied, her delicate, chocolate smeared face intent.

“Are you finished there?” A bubbly Mamono waitress asked as she passed, curved horns peeking from a mane of curly white hair, woollen cuffs of similar texture on her forearms and legs.

“I am” I answered politely, gesturing for her to take my bowl. “I think Don Quixote there is going to take another tilt at the windmill though.”

“To reach the unreachable staaaaaaar!” Sparks sang in a clear high voice, raising a spoon above her head.

“It’s so nice to see a father and his daughter having an evening together.” The sheep-girl gushed, a soppy smile on her face.

I almost corrected her, then thought for a moment. A grown man on the cusp of fifty, sitting alone with a fifteen year old girl… Yeah nah I wasn’t going to trade the innocent mistaken identity for the potential jail-time one.

Sparks grinned at her, before assaulting the remains with vigour.

“So if it’s not Maou, who is it?”

“Dunno.” Sparks admitted “Whenever I’ve asked her about it it’s always ‘Chapters Coming Forth By Day’ this, and ‘The accusation of Thoth’ that, and ‘The feather’s weight on the scales of Ma’at.’ Confusing as hell.”

“No pun intended.” I snicker.

Sparks sits back with a quiet belch. “Fiiiiinished.”

“Well done. Now let’s see if you can keep it down on the way home. You’re still doing math tutoring with Sally tonight, yeah?”

“Uh huh.” Sparks agreed, rubbing her stomach with a slight look of discomfort.

“I’m sorry I threw up on your car.” Sparks mumbled sleepily where she leant against me, her blue hair fanning over my chest.

“One will wash it off. Little Miss need not worry” Tem’s voice came from the driver’s seat.

“Plus getting to say ‘I told you so’ makes it all wor…OW!” I gasp, looking down to where Sparks had just launched a tiny arc of electricity into my leg.

“Mean.” Sparks sulked, nuzzling into me.

I chuckled helplessly, putting an arm around the young Raiju as we drove along in silence for a moment.

“How do you know ‘Don Quixote’ anyway, Michael?” Sparks yawned.

“Hmm? Oh, I used to love musicals… OK I’m a damnable liar, they were a pretty guaranteed date until I met Kylie. She’d already seen them all.” I chuckle, nostalgia swelling but this time not overwhelming me, allowing me to bask in the bitter sweetness of the memory.

“That was your wife before the accident?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why did she leave?”

I sigh slightly “She had her reasons. It’s still a little raw, kid, why don’t we talk about school for a bit?”

“M’kay… Sorry.”

I squeeze her gently with my arm. “S’orright. So, you’re doing musicals?”

“Yeah. The teacher’s amazing. Total Alp-bait but I don’t think he cares.” Sparks snickers

“So you’re not having any trouble like at DeLunkhead’s?” I ask.

Sparks giggles, raising her head from where she leant against me “I love that name… No! Everyone’s really nice. The only rumour about me is that I was put there by some mysteeeeerious benefactor. My literature teacher’s a Hakutaku and she’s DESPERATE to know your name.”

A slow smile spreads across my face. “Next time she asks, put on your most ingenuous expression and say ‘I don’t know, I’ve never seen his face, he always wears a mask.”

Sparks grins widely and hugs me. “Phantom of the Opera! I love that one. She’ll go absolutely crazy at that. We’ll have to swim out of the classroom.”

“Swim out of the… Oh Sparks!” I grunt in disgust.

“I meant from the drool!” Sparks justified “Why, what were you thinking?”

“None of your business.” I grumble, outplayed.

The sound of the tyres on the road turned to gravel as we headed up my driveway towards the house. Strange… I never really looked at how big the place really was.

“Come on you, inside.”

Soft snoring was my only answer.

“You know…” I grunted as I scooped her slight form into my arms “You’re going to have to get better at acting, that’s the worst fake snore I’ve ever heard.”

“Worked, didn’t it?” Sparks quipped as I carried her inside.

“I should turn the sprinklers on and dump you in the garden.”

“Meanie” Sparks pouted.

“Well, you two were out late, I was about to call a search party!” Sally chided, smiling as we walked in the door.

“Why? What time is it?” I ask

“After nine.”

“Bugger me. Guess you’re sleeping over tonight Sparks.”

“Yaaaay” Sparks yawned, nuzzling into my chest.

Chuckling, I take her to the guest room, plopping her onto the bed.

“You right to sort yourself out, kid?”

“Mmmfff.” Comes my only answer as she buries her face in the pillows, electric blue hair fanning out like a radiant aura around her head.

“I’ve called the school, they’re fine with it, although the dorm mistress did query why you bother paying for boarding when she seems to spend so much time ‘at home’ anyway.” Sally remarks as I re-enter the lounge room, where a long massage table has been set up.

“Oh come on, she doesn’t come over THAT much.” I snort.

“Whatever you say, Michael.” Sally shrugs, her expression unreadable. “Now strip.”

“Why Miss SALLY!” I exclaim dramatically. “What will people say?!”

“Just take your clothes off and get on the table already.” Sally chuckles, “Honestly you think that’s going to keep being funny after a whole month?”

“Dunno…” I remark, unbuttoning my shirt. “I still get a giggle out of it.”

Sally rolled her eyes, rubbing massage lotion onto her hands as I wrapped a towel around my waist, clambering with a slight grunt onto the table.

“She’s not going to fall behind is she?” I murmur, wincing as Sally goes to town on my back.

“How do you mean?” Sally asks, kneading at a knot in my shoulder

“The math tutoring.” I replied, gritting my teeth as Sally works at a particularly tender point.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sally answered bluntly, her fingers kneading downwards.

I start at that. “Hang on. What do you two do in your room then when she comes over?”

“She does her homework while I sort out the sheafs of paperwork you generate…” I swear she pinched me there. “…She says it makes her feel more comfortable.”

“Wha?” I exclaim, propping myself up on my elbows and looking at the Holstaur kneading me. “Why would she lie to me like that?”

“I-I’m sorry…” A small voice sounds from the hallway. I turn my head to see Sparks standing there, a woebegone expression on her delicate face. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Sally, where are my pants? We’re going to sort this out.” I state, looking at the Raiju teen shuffling her feet in my hallway.

“Of all the things for you to pull the wool over my eyes on, Sparks…” I chide gently.

“I-it just seemed like a good excuse at the time.” Sparks stammered. “I liked how it felt being with you and Miss Sally… I… I didn’t feel so alone anymore.”

That one kicked me in the guts, moreso than any accidental electricity she had thrown my way.

“Seraphina Marie…” I start seriously. Sparks looks at me, tears shimmering in her eyes, her lip quivering.

“…Sweetheart… If you wanted to stay here, all you had to do was ask.” I gently offer, opening my arms to the Raiju.

Sparks wails, falling into my arms. “Oh yes! Please! I won’t make any trouble, Michael, I promise!”

“You’re a fifteen year old girl who honestly needs a high voltage warning stapled to her forehead.” I chuckle, kissing her hair. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Sally dashed tears from her eyes as she looked at us, her expression once again a mystery.

“You’re sure about this?” Sally murmured as I squinted at the coffee machine.

“Whazzat?” I grunted

“Having the thunderbug live here.”

“Aw hell.” I drawl “It’s a big house, and bugger it, I LIKE the girl. Doesn’t cost me anything I can’t afford.”

“That’s all it is?” Sally insisted.

“Why do I feel like the counsellor’s sneaking up on me before I’m adequately caffeinated?” I snicker.

“I’m hardly hiding it, Michael.” Sally chided “Are you sure you’re not just using Sparks to fill the hole left by the absence of your own family?”

I ponder that for a minute. “Possibly, but to be honest, so fucking what? She’s missing a father, I’m missing a child… Hardly seems like anybody’s losing out here.”

“Oh, I agree. Just wanted to make sure you were aware that this wasn’t some kind of perceived magnanimity.” Sally chuckled.

“Any magnanimous gestures were satisfied when I paid the goddamn school fees.” I groan. “Fuck me blind but Rasmussen’s are a pack of fuckin’ pirates.”

“Speaking of which, she’s going to be late if we don’t get her up soon.” Sally interjected.

I chuckled. “I have no idea how some bright spark hasn’t wifed you, Sally. You’re on top of everything, aren’t ya?”

“Oh, sod’s law, I suppose.” Sally replied, a mirthless smirk on her generous lips.

I walk down the hallway, rapping a knuckle against the door of the guest… no… SPARKS’s room.

“Oi Kid, you up?”

“Michael?” A slightly shrill voice from the room. “I’m not… I don’t…..”

I open the door, leaping backwards as a searing bolt of electricity strikes the wall near my head

“Jesus H. titty-fucking Christ!” I exclaim, picking myself up off the floor.

“Are you alright Michael?” Sally asks, her face a picture of concern as she clops on digitigrade hooves up the hall towards me.

“I think the thunderbug might be practicing for the role of ‘Thermonuclear Power Plant” I reply, pointing at the door.

“Sparks? Honey?” Sally asks through the wood “Are you alright?”

“M-Miss Sally! I can’t… I can’t seem to get myself under control!” Sparks laments “And I’m all… I’m all tingly… Down there…”

Sally’s eyes go a little wild. “What did you two have yesterday?” She demands, looking at me intently.

“Well that one had a shitload of ice cream, though she puked most of it up in the carpark…” I begin.

“Did anything on the menu have an ‘H’ in a circle next to it?” Sally asks, urgency in her voice.

“No… No there was nothing like that.” I reply, frowning slightly. “What’s going on?”

Sally ignores me, turning once again to the door. “Sparks, did you go to the kitchen for a drink last night?”

“O-only a glass of milk!” Sparks’s voice sounds through the door.

“And did you get the milk from the plastic or the glass bottles?” Sally asks insistently.

“T-the glass bottles… Ooohhh Maou!” Sparks moans to the accompaniment of the tearing sound of raw electrical discharge and the unmistakable scent of ozone.

“Stupid stupid stupid!” Sally hisses, smacking the heel of her hand against her forehead.

“What’s the matter?” I demand urgently.

“That was your post-PT drink.”

I blink. “And? Milk’s milk, right?”

“Well…” Sally mumbles, wincing as another throaty moan and another shattering discharge rattles the door. “…Not exactly. The milk in the glass bottles was… Mine.”

“Ok, so it was mine, now it’s yours… You’re losing me here Sally.”

“Do I have to paint you a damn picture Michael?! Mine!” She blusters, blushing heavily and pointing to her impressive chest.

“You… Were feeding me your breast milk.” I clarify.

“J-just for therapeutic reasons… D-don’t get the wrong idea or anything!” Sally stammers.

“Uh huh… I think I’d better call Ethan.”

Sally nods, her face still flaming with shame and embarrassment.

I step out of the hallway, tapping my wrist and setting the speaker option, fuck trying to find my headset.

“Dr Naylor?” Ethan answers in that clipped professional manner of his.

“Ethan, it’s Mike, we’ve got a bit of a conundrum here.” I begin.

“Uncle Mike? What happened? Is everything alright?”

“I’m not sure, that’s the problem, long story short I find out Sally’s been feeding me her breastmilk and…”

“Holstaur milk? Oh you lucky bastard! That stuff would be a right panacea to someone in your condition! It’s worth it’s damn weight in gold, almost literally, and that’s when it’s available for sale!” Ethan interjects, sounding overjoyed.

“So… it’s a good thing.”

“It’s a great thing!” Ethan gushed “Although the sex-drive increase probably isn’t helping anything.”

“I hadn’t noticed.” I admitted, sure I was a little toey, but I just wrote that down to fifteen years of no action making Little Mikey clear its throat and look at me askance.

“Then you have absolutely nothing to worry about.” Ethan assured me. “So what’s the problem?”

“Well, a… friend has gotten into it and is having some… difficulty.”

“Uh huh… Age and species?”

“15 year old Raiju”

“…You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

A muffled noise on the other side of the line, clearly Ethan was trying very hard not to collapse into peals of laughter.

“N-nobody’s injured?” Ethan gasped

“No, thank Christ” I grumbled, “I hardly see what’s so funny.”

“You wouldn’t, localized electrical storm in the house and all… Ahem… The effects will go away on their own eventually.”

“Fuck eventually, Ethan! I’ve got a frightened little girl in there who’s got no idea what’s happening, can’t you give me something else?”

“Remember what I said about the sex-drive thing?” Ethan offered delicately

“I don’t see how that’s relevant, but yeah.”

“Well… Manual stimulation could help in reducing the duration of the effects…”

“Bloody hell…” I gasped “…That was unexpected.”

“Mmm, it is a delicate one… Maybe let Sally… run her through it?”

“I should bloody well think so!” I blustered, my face flaming.

“You OK thunderbug?” I ask gently as a slightly frazzled looking Sparks shuffles into the lounge room.

Sparks gives a slightly sheepish grin “y-yeah”

“I am so sorry, both of you.” Sally laments, a mortified expression on her face.

“Look, you weren’t to know It’d put Sparks into the proverbial stratosphere. I’ve been drinking it for how long now?” I retorted.

“But still…” Sally laments

“But still nothing. It was an accident, it happened, and I for one would be much more comfortable with the whole thing if we just left it there.”

Sally looks at me with that unreadable gaze again, and Sparks voices her vehement agreement.

“One thing that I did manage to get done whilst a mysterious electrical storm which-I-have-no-explanation-for-and-that’s-how-it’s-going-to-stay-dammit reduced every breaker in the house to molten slag, I managed to get through to the embassy.”

“A-and?” Sparks asked, looking very small and vulnerable as she peered up at me, seeming not to dare to hope.

“And I’m your new Guardian.”

Sparks lets out a delighted squeal, running over to me and throwing her arms around me.

“So…” I chuckled “We’d better go and get your stuff from the dormitory, yeah?”

“Uh huh…” Sparks agreed, grinning. “..But could Miss Sally go with me, if it’s alright?”

My brow furrows in confusion. “I mean, it’s up to Sally if she’s free and all, but why don’t you want me helping, Sparks?”

“Because I don’t want anyone at school making the connection…” Sparks explains with a conspiratorial smirk. “I REALLY want to try out that Phantom gag on my Literature teacher!”

“Phantom gag?” Sally echoes, a questioning look on her face.

“You really had to be there, Sally.” I sigh, chuckling helplessly. “Well, since the day’s pretty much gone and the electrician won’t be able to come out until tomorrow morning, what say we go out for dinner, all of us?”

“I’m all for it.” Sally agrees, “But if anyone so much as SUGGESTS milkshakes I’ll scream.”

Sparks gives a crystalline giggle, hopping off the chair she had perched herself on and crossing to Sally, throwing her arms around the curvaceous Holstaur in a warm embrace.

“That sounds so cliché…” Sally snorts.

“Can’t hurt anyone. If the teacher’s any kind of decent she’ll get a good giggle out of it.” I reply, grimacing as Sally pushed my hips forward into a stretch. “Shit Sally… I’d like to keep my legs somewhat attached yeah?”

“Don’t be such a baby.” Sally chided “Now hold it there… and relax.”

I stood up with a sigh, twisting at the waist slightly to relieve the pressure on my back muscles. Suddenly a buzzing at my wrist. I looked down, tapping at my earpiece.

“Frank! You’re here to save me from this demoness.”

“Hah.” Frank’s deep voice answers. “You know there are people who pay a lot of money for the kind of intensive therapy you’re receiving.”

“I know. I’m one of them, have you SEEN the invoices?” I snicker, flicking Sally a cheeky wink. She holds out a glass purposefully, which I take and guzzle without thinking.

“Was that?” I mouth

Sally rolls her eyes and nods. “Good for you” she whispers.

I shrug, not bothering to fight it. “So what’s up that you’re calling me before midday, Frank?”

“Oh, just seeing if you have any plans this weekend? Wait, of course you don’t because my best friend has turned into a bloody hermit.”

“I’m convalescing.” I drawl.

“No shit. Is that why you’re adopting orphaned teenagers? Living out some Daddy Warbucks fantasy?”

“Fuck you and your smart mouth Frank. How’d you find out so quick?” I demand

“Did you forget the whole ‘Power of Attorney’ thing?”

“Really must rectify that…” I grumble.

“Yeah well, before you do that, there’s something of a to-do on Friday night. Few big clients there and it would be a definite bonus if my celebrity show-pony could stick his head in.” Frank interrupts.

“This is something you’re going to insist on.” I groan, pinching the skin on the bridge of my nose.

“It would mean a lot to me, Michael.” Frank entreated, his voice sincere.

“Alright alright, I hate it when you talk dirty to me like that.”

“Fuck you, funnyman.”

I chuckle. “Forward me the details, and make sure my name’s on the door this time, yeah?”

“Already done. Oh… and bring a date.”

“Come on man, I know the rest of the world might be past it but it’s all still a little…” I object.

“…Hire a bloody escort, bring your new ward, I don’t fucking care, I would just STRONGLY advise not attending alone.”

“Alright… I’ll sort something out.” I reply, taken back slightly by his vehemence.

“Good. See you then mate. I’d lie if I said I wasn’t looking forward to it, it’s been too long.”

“It has, mate.” I agree “See you then.”

A ‘bip’ as the call terminates. I take a deep breath, staring off into the middle distance for a moment.

“What was that?” Sally asks

“Oh… Just being called upon to do my friendly duties…” I reply, turning to look at her. Hang on a second… If there was anyone who’d fill out a dress that I didn’t have to worry about…

“Sally?” I begin, my mouth stretching into a slow grin. “You terribly busy on Friday night?”

“Are you sure I look alright?” Sally mumbled. I turned to look at her incredulously. She was wearing a floor length violet number that accentuated her already astounding curves, a small jacket rimmed with cream coloured fur against the slight wind around her shoulders.

“Well if by ‘alright’ you mean ‘anything less than stunning’ then no.” I grinned. “Stop worrying, you’ll have half the women in attendance crying into their overpriced appletinis.”

“Name please?” The Amazonian woman at the door murmured with polite disinterest, brushing an errant lock of hair away from the single horn in her blue-skinned forehead.

“Michael Anderson.” I replied.

“There! That’s him!” I heard an urgent voice behind me. “Mr Anderson! Debbie Fitzpatrick, A Current Affair, do you have a moment to talk about…” She began, shoving a fuzzy microphone in my face, glare of a camera light in my eyes.

Sally’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at me with a wicked smile. ‘Stumbling’, she hooked her head viciously to the side, her horn impaling the camera as she fell into my arms.

“Oh! Oh I’m sorry Michael! How clumsy of me.”

“It’s alright.” I offered with a grin, not bothering to meet the eyes of the cameraman who inspected his ruined equipment before staring murderously at us. “The pavement here is wretchedly unsteady.”

“Such an unfortunate accident” The massive woman at the door agreed. “I’ll have the manager call the council about it as soon as possible. Please, let me help you inside.”

A surprisingly delicate looking hand took Sally’s other arm, and together we ‘Helped’ the Holstaur through the doors and away from prying eyes.

”You OK hun?” The horned woman asked, her tone much more casual than before.

“Fine, thanks for playing along.” Sally grinned.

“Just seeing that pushy bitch get stumped was enough for me, she’s been haranguing every second guest who rocks up. NICE swipe with that horn, by the way. Don’t see that from a Holstaur very often.”

“Well I’m just thankful they have the sense to hire Blue Oni for security here. Explaining that to an Ogre would have been painful…”

“I hear ya hun. Most of them would spend the night trying to find an excuse to get inside for the free grog” The Oni chuckled.

“Find a way to sneak you out some?” Sally smiled conspiratorially

The Oni laughed, patting a hip pocket. “They’re looking after me. You two go have fun, I’ve got entitled muppets to disappoint outside.”

“Remind me to gush her praises to the appropriate parties.” I snicker, handing my jacket to a waiting attendant.

“That would be very sweet of you.” Sally replied, shaking her head softly as the coat checker looked at her askance.

Pocketing the ticket, I offered her my arm.

“Now into the gates of Hell…” I murmured

“Dramatist” Sally laughed as we headed into the polite bustle inside.

“Michael!” Frank boomed expansively, excusing himself and snagging three glasses of sparkling wine as a server maneuvered past with practiced dexterity.

“Gudday Frank” I grin, accepting the wine and the unashamed bearhug.

“And who is THIS vision?” Frank asked, handing a glass to Sally.

“Come on Mr Naylor, you know exactly who I am.” Sally laughed, taking the offered glass.

“Don’t tell the wife!” Frank hissed jokingly.

“Oh yeh… What’s that about then?” looking between the two

“Frank put a disc out a few years ago. I was freelancing as a sports therapist.” Sally answered.

“Put an end to a promising golf career.” Frank lamented dramatically.

“You were never below a six on the handicap, you baka.” A woman chided, taking the last glass from Frank’s hand and ignoring his complaint. She was short, with stubby, furred ears and a broad, fluffy tail which emerged from the elegant dress behind her.

“Kayo, I presume.” I smiled, holding my hand out to the woman politely.

“Indeed. It’s so nice to meet you finally Michael.” Kayo smiled, ignoring the hand and leaning up to kiss me warmly on the cheek.

“Check your pockets! You know what these Tanuki are like!” Frank gasped before giving his wife a shit-eating grin.

“Frank!” Kayo lamented, her face twisting into an adorable pout.

“What? You stole my heart years ago, pretty, with malice of bloody forethought.”

“Charmer.” Kayo smiled, kissing him briefly. “I’m still going to get you for that later.”

“Bugger.” Frank swore softly.

“I’ve heard so much about you, Michael.” Kayo gushed, her smile warm and genuine.

“I refuse to confirm nor deny without my lawyer present.” I jest, returning her smile.

“I am your bloody lawyer.” Frank snickers.

“Then I shall say even less.”

Sally sighs, rolling her eyes. “Were they ALWAYS this bad?”

“SALLY!” Kayo cries, throwing her arms around the Holstaur. “What a lovely surprise!” She looks over her shoulder at me, “Michael, I’m stealing your date. I have some people here from the Institute she simply HAS to meet.”

“See? I fucking warned you she’d steal valuables.” Frank snickered as I gave a smile and a slight wave.

“We’re not… I mean…” I corrected

“Yeah yeah, come on, we’ll head to the bar and get a real drink.” Frank drawled, putting his arm around my shoulders and leading me through the crowd.

“Michael, this is Brian McDavidson, the new Director of the Office of Extraplanar Naturalization.” Frank said expansively. “And the most annoying opponent I’ve ever faced in court.”

I held my hand out. “Michael. Glad to meet you Brian.”

The sandy-haired man grinned. “Pleasure’s all mine. Thanks for rescuing me from the Ambassador. She’s like a dog at a bone…” He glanced to where an elegant if older Kitsune chatted politely with another guest, white hair spilling around a delicately lined face, four tails swishing slightly as they fanned behind her. “No pun intended.”

“Didn’t you give him the ‘Bring a Date’ speech?” I chuckled.

Brian laughed, holding up a left hand which bore a gold band on the third finger. “This is enough to keep me out of trouble.”

“Still trying to get her daughter that liaison role eh?” Frank chuckled.

“I wouldn’t mind so much if she would just accept that Takako’s talented enough to get the position on her own merits.” Brian sighed. “I almost feel like I have to reject her out of hand, but I don’t want to lose such a talented hire to another department.”

“Your wife here tonight then?” I ask, snagging another glass as a server moved past.

Brian shook his head. “Nah, she’s out on a research boat near Antarctica, supposed to be back yesterday but apparently they hit some weather. Wish she was though. If I have to say ‘Sorry, I’m married’ one more bloody time…”

“Aw hell.” Frank groaned. “Look alive boys. Trouble, three o-clock and closing fast.”

I followed Frank’s glance, seeing a tall, elegant woman approaching us. Her skin and hair were inordinately pale, almost albino, lending her an almost otherworldy appearance. An appearance that was only accentuated by the large, batlike wings which sprouted from her back and the curving horns which twisted upwards from her temples.

“What…”

“Lilim.” Frank hissed.

“Fuck off. Like a no joke out-of-the-bible fucking demon?!” I exclaimed in a harsh whisper.

“Yep. Kinda a cross between the pope and a crown princess. Hopefuly she doesn’t…”

“Mr Naylor!” The Lilim exclaimed in a throaty, almost resonant voice.

“Balls.” Frank whispered. “Your Excellency! We’re honoured. Can I introduce…”

“Michael Anderson…” The Lilim purred, golden eyes fixated on me. “I was beginning to think I would have to take this place apart looking for you.”

“M-my reputation precedes me, it seems, Your Excellency.” I stammered, my head feeling slightly cloudy for some reason, my gaze fixed upon hers.

“Oh INDEED.” The lilim agreed, a forked tongue licking delicately across her moist lips. “I would SO much like to speak to you on certain… Business mergers which have come to my attention. I find myself in need of a… Capable hand.”

My heart was pounding, my mouth dry… I couldn’t think.

“Of course…” I heard myself saying “Why don’t we…”

“DARLING!” Came an enthusiastic cry, and I felt arms wrap around me and a pair of full lips press themselves to mine. “How could you run off and leave me all alone…”

The fog lifted from my brain, and I pulled myself back. “I’m sorry… Sally?!” I exclaimed, looking into the eyes of the Holstaur who held me in a close embrace. Her face twisted in an adorably petulant pout, and she raised a hand to tap me on the nose with a finger.

“So formal? I’d begin to think that you were ashamed of me!” She sulked.

“W-what? Never!” I decry, pulling her closer to me, finally getting the game as I see the Lilim looking at us with an expression of furious disappointment. “How could I ever be ashamed of you, my luscious little sweetheart?”

Swearing softly in some unknown language, the Lilim stalked off.

“What was that about?” I asked softly.

“I saw her about to sink her royal hooks in… thought I’d better come and save you before you took up residence in Pandemonium.” Sally replied with a relieved sigh.

“Do I really want to know?”

“N-no… not really.” Sally murmured, her cheeks reddening.

“Sally? Are you alright? Is something the matter?”

“Y-you’re still grabbing my butt, Michael.” Sally near-whimpered.

“Oh! Damn, sorry!” I exclaimed, releasing the Holstaur.

“It’s OK, I didn’t mind…” Sally replied, her cheeks still slightly flushed. Realizing what she just said, her eyes widened, and she grabbed a glass of wine, drinking it in one draught. “Oh my!” She exclaimed, a little too loudly “Isn’t it frightfuly warm for this time of year?”

“Er… You are still wearing your coat, ma’am.” Brian pointed out.

“Oh! S-silly me! I’d best go deal with that then.” She declared, her digitigrade hooves clopping on the floor as she fled with as much dignity as she could muster.

“She just saved my hide, didn’t she?” I murmur to Frank.

Frank simply nodded, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

“C’mon! How’d you know the one to pick?” I slur drunkenly.

“That gamesh predictable…” Sally hiccupped, leaning on the bar as I flopped onto the couch, struggling with my shoes.

“You are full of bloody surprises.” I drawl, getting one shoe off and flopping slightly to one side with the recoil.

“Oh stop… You’re teasing me *hic*” Sally giggled.

“I’m not!” I insist, reaching forward for the other shoe with the hand still grasping its mate.

“Lemme help…” Sally insisted, kneeling down in front of me.

“I’m not an invalid!” I protest.

“You’re drunk.”

“YOU’RE drunk.”

Sally pulls off my other shoe, falling onto her ample backside with a slight squeak. “Maybe a little…” She concedes.

“Here. Lemme help you up.” I declare magnanimously, reaching down to take her hand and falling in a drunken pile of limbs and laughter with her. We look into each other’s eyes, our faces inches away from each other.

Suddenly we’re kissing… How did that happen? Her hands around my back, mine busy on the front of her dress, her large breasts soft and yielding in my hands.

“This is highly unprofessional” She moans as I nibble on her neck.

“Highly” I agree

“We are really going to regret this in the morning”

“Absolutely”

“We should stop.”

“We really should.”

“Why are your pants still on?”

“I have no idea.”

Then, Sally is moaning underneath me. “Gentle…” She whimpers as I labour atop her, the sound of our copulation lewd and rhythmic, our breaths gasping and eager.

Kissing her, I hook one of her legs over my shoulder. A lowing moan escapes her lips as her hips shudder, her eyes rolling back in her head as I feel the velvet walls of her most hidden secrets clamp around my member. Watching her face in such a paroxysm of passion, her breasts bouncing with the rhythym of my thrusts, I feel a familiar ache rise up…

“Sally… I’m gonna…” I gasp

Her legs clamp about me. “Michaaaaeeelllllll” She moans as I erupt inside her, my own gasps throaty as my orgasm rocks me. On it goes, longer than I had ever experienced, until I collapse next to her, utterly and totally spent.

I crack one eye with a slight groan. Shifting the blanket atop me, I wonder when my bed got so bloody hard…

Wait.

This wasn’t my room.

This was the lounge room floor.

A moan as the figure next to me stirs.

“Morning” I venture.

“Hi…” Sally replies with a shy smile, before putting her hand to her head and wincing. “Urghhh… Maou… Why did I drink so much last night?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time…” I murmur, hunting for my pants. Finding them, I stand and put them on. “Coffee?”

“Please.” Sally replies gratefuly.

“No problem, after all, you had the foresight to grab the blanket.” I state, hunting down mugs.

“I didn’t… I thought you did.”

That hits me at the same time as I see the note stuck to the refrigerator.

“Forgiveness for the rude shock is free…” It reads “…But freedom from teasing will involve pancakes.”

“Sparks.” I moan.

“She didn’t!” Sally declares, mortified, wrapping the blanket around herself and looking at me in horror.

“Looks like…” I chuckle. “Do we have any pancake mix?”

“I’m sorry Sparks.” I offer sincerely

“Mmmf? What for?” The young raiju asks innocently, pausing in her assault of a massive stack of pancakes.

“That probably wasn’t the best thing to wake up to”

Sparks gives a crystalline giggle, “To be honest I was wondering when it would happen.”

“Really?” Sally exclaims in surprise.

“Well I wasn’t expecting the loungeroom floor…” Sparks remarks with a chiding grin. “…but the way you’ve been looking at Mike?”

Sally blushes, and I begin to understand the meaning behind her lingering looks. A warm feeling permeated my chest as I realized the same feelings germinating within my own heart.

“Sods law, eh?” I grin

“Yeah.” Sally replied, her eyes warm and affectionate where they stared into my own.

“Mind you though…” Sparks adds, pointing at me with a fork. “You really need a tan.”

“You said no teasing!” I exclaim.

“I promise nothing.” Sparks sniffs, looking loftily at the pair of us before breaking into her broad, infectious grin.

“Rascal.” I chuckle, ruffling her hair, letting the pure, comforting homeliness of it all wash over me.

Headpats and Pancakes on a Saturday morning, with two people grown unexpectedly dear to my heart.

Not a bad way to start the rest of my life.

Chapter 3

“Sparks. Stop being a brat.” I ordered sharply.

“Michael!” My young Raiju ward gasped, her scintillating eyes brimming with insincere injury. “Why are you being so mean?”

“Blame it on advancing age. Now give.”

“No. You’re being mean and I don’t wanna.”

I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose. Sally is leaning against the bench, grinning at the both of us, her bovine ears twitching slightly.

“Planning on helping me out at any point here?” I ask the curvaceous Holstaur plaintively.

“You’re the one who wants to see it so badly.” Sally snickered. “I’m being Swaziland on this.”

“Switzerland.”

Sally ambles over, kissing me softly “If it makes you feel better.” She murmurs, before turning and walking up the hall. My gaze lingers on her ample backside. ‘Two cats fighting in a bag’ is the common phrase but damn me if it barely does her justice.

“Pervert” Sparks remarks, her face twisted with a mixture of distaste and amusement.

“Hate to see her go, but love to watch her leave.” I drawl, forgetting for a moment that I’m speaking with my teenage ward. “I mean, er…” I bluster, trying to think of a way not to sound like a lecher.

“I heard that!” Sally’s voice rings out from down the hall.

I sigh “Course you did.” Turning back to the adolescent Raiju perched on the couch, I take a deep breath, resigning myself to negotiations.

“Alright. What’s it going to cost me?”

Sparks plays with a length of electric-blue hair, small arcs of electricity running down its length, and a faint smell of ozone permeating the air.

“Tell me I’m pretty?” She asks, her eyes suddenly soft.

Hold the fucking phone… I’d gotten used to her dramatic and seemingly random shifts in mood but this was something else.

“Alright, you’ve got me worried.” I state, sitting down on the couch and patting the seat next to me. “Spill.”

“It’s Travis…” Sparks sighs, still playing with her hair.

“What’d he do?” I growl protectively.

“No! Nothing like that.” Sparks assures me quickly. “I-in fact I wish it WAS something like that.”

“Oh?” I offer neutrally, a confused mix of curiosity and dread worming in my guts.

“I asked him out.”

Oh yep. This old chestnut.

“And I’m assuming he said no.”

Sparks nodded, sniffing slightly. “W-why doesn’t he want me?”

I sigh, putting an arm around her slender shoulders. The minor zaps of electricity which arc into my forearm largely unnoticed, I’m so used to them now.

“Honey. It’s not you. He’s just lost his dad, his step-mum’s absolutely beside herself… Hell, it’s why I invited him to stay for those couple of weeks last month. Give him something to distract him from the horror of life for a bit, you know?”

Sparks’s childlike features twisted in frustration, her soft ears flicking involuntarily “I know… We just… we felt so GOOD together and there were times when I thought I could totally kiss him right now and he’s so CUTE and…”

“I know you did. Why do you think I kept interrupting?”

Sparks looks at me, and a harder jolt impacts my torso, making me wheeze. “You did that on PURPOSE?!” she cries in outrage

“Fuck me… Remind me to get the defibrillator out before we have these heart-to-hearts.” I gasp.

“Don’t be a pussy, you can handle it.”

“Language”

“You first”

I chuckle, ruffling her hair slightly. “Sure. You could have just taken him like your friend Kashi kept insisting, and don’t you dare shock me again, Sally told me about that one.” I interject, anticipating her next assault. “And you always would have wondered if he was only with you because you made the pain go away.”

“B-but he’d still be mine…” Sparks sulked.

“You remember that big fight me and Sally had last month?”

“The one I threatened to zap the stupid out of you both for?”

I laugh, ruffling her hair again. “That’s the one. It was something similar. Sally was worried I was only with her because I’d been left. That I only took you in as a placeholder for a life I wasn’t ready to accept was over.”

“Th-that’s not true is it?” Sparks whimpered, her heart in her eyes.

“It might have been at first, I won’t lie.” I admitted, holding the young Raiju to me. “But I’ve come to love you both for who you are. That part of my life is done, and the rest of it started with the two of you standing centre stage. I love you both so, so much.”

“Prove it.” Sparks murmured softly.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Let me call you Dad?”

“Nothing would make me happier, Seraphina.” I choked, my eyes stinging as I held her close.

We sat there in silence for a moment, Her delicate arms around my torso, my cheek against her head. After a while, she pulled back from me, wiping her eyes.

“I suppose you want to see it still?” She sniffed.

“Yes, I still want to see it.” I grinned, cupping her cheek gently, my hand looking massive against her delicate face.

“Okay… Dad.” Sparks replied with a soft smile, pulling a heavily insulated handpiece from her pocket.

“Urgh… This brick is such a pain.”

“I called R&D, they’re looking at a better-shielded wrist-option for the next release.” I assured her

“You’re working again?” Sparks asked with astonishment

I shook my head “More making a nuisance of myself. Apparently AOD was feeling a little neglected that I’d woken up and hadn’t immediately done a press conference on their front stairs. So I call the board and the heads of departments now and then and make unreasonable demands, keeps ‘em on their toes.”

“You are so mean dad.” Sparks chuckles, and I feel warmth spread through me at the appellation. She points the handset at the screen mounted on the wall and swipes upward, the image appearing as the device begins streaming. The footage shows a classroom, with Sparks’s unmistakable figure standing in front of a tall, curvaceous mamono, horns standing horizontally from her head before curving into points, her attire elaborately alien.

“But I’d really like to have some feedback from your guardian, Seraphina.” The woman, obviously her teacher began. “What was his name again?”

“I don’t know miss…” Sparks said, the ghost of a wicked smile on her bowlike mouth “…I’ve never seen his face, he always wears a mask.”

The teacher flushed almost instantly, her digitigrade legs trembling as her thighs pressed together. “Oh… Oh my…” She moaned. “…C-continue with your work, class. I must attend to something in the staff room.”

The camera panned to follow her as she fled the room, Sparks rapidly approaching the unknown recorder.

“Peer it to me, peer it to me!” She insisted with a stifled giggle as the video shut off.

For a moment, all was silent, before I erupted in a peal of helpless laughter.

“It’s not THAT funny dad.” Sparks giggled.

“Fuck off it’s not, that was FANTASTIC!” I howled, slapping my knee as I shook in paroxysms of mirth.

“She knows who you actually are, you know.”

“D-don’t care… Are all Hakutaku that taken by literature?” I gasp, striving to bring my breathing back under control.

“I don’t know… She’s the first one I’ve met.”

“One day I’ll find something that works Sally up to that degree.”

“Eeew. Image.”

“Sorry Sparks”

“S’alright dad… Wanna watch it again?”

I hug my Raiju ward… no… DAUGHTER to me, kissing her cheek affectionately.

“You bloody know it kid.”

“You two sorted things out then?” Sally mumbled as I clambered into bed.

“Eventually” I admit, sliding in next to her, her cuddling her back into me as I settle.

“So was it worth it?”

“It was goddamn hilarity, you should see it.”

“Mmm, Maybe. What about the other thing?”

I propped myself up on an elbow. “Other thing?”

“Her wanting to call you dad?”

I slid my hands up her sides, tickling her. “So you were in on that then?”

“Stop!” She squealed, squirming deliciously against me. “She ran it past me is all, wanted to know how you might react.”

“Eight months and you’re an expert on me, eh?” I drawl, sliding my hands around her and cupping her voluminous breasts in my hands.

“I’ve picked up a few things…” Sally replied breathily, grinding her backside into my crotch.

I began sliding a hand down her belly towards the juncture of her thighs. A soft hand rested atop mine, pausing my advances.

“Michael, one thing, before we’re both too distracted.”

“You have my unbridled attention.” I whispered into her bovine ear.

“I’m serious.” Sally replied, rolling over to face me and taking my hands in her own. “You might want to watch how… open you are with sexuality in front of her.”

“Ah hell Sally, she flat out caught us the first night we were together, AND there’s been a few times where SOMEONE’s vocal appreciation has earned me a terse text message.” I reply, “it’s not like she doesn’t know.”

“That’s different. You’re not dealing with a Human girl. Sparks is approaching an age where she’s going to start being a lot more… proactive with boys. Your example is going to mean a lot to her.”

I sat up, scratching my cheek in thought. “I’m missing something here.”

Sally props herself up, her deep brown eyes staring intently into mine, her breasts jiggling slightly under the thin nightie she wore, and her horns glinting in the soft moonlight streaming through the window. “We are what we are, Michael. Sparks is going to be tremendously powerful as she gets older, and the temptation to just take what she wants using her abilities will grow. It’ll be on you in a large part to teach her restraint.”

“Christ Sally, I’m a forcibly retired entrepreneur with more money than sense, let’s not beat around the bush. My entire LIFE has been a series of me taking what I want…” I leaned forward, kissing her softly. “…Just as an example.”

“And if I wasn’t what you wanted, I never would have agreed to be with you. I’m no innocent sophomore Michael, giving her heart to the first human to smile at her. I’ve had to learn some… hard lessons over the years.”

The Holstaur’s eyes drop to the blankets, her hands fidgeting.

“One day…” I begin “I’ll get a straight answer out of you on that.”

“One day.” Sally agreed “Just not today.”

“Orright hun. I’ll try and be a bit more proper around her.”

Sally smiled. “Thank you.” She murmured, kissing me insistently. “Now where were we?”

“Well I dunno babe, you’ve gone and changed the whole bloody mood of the evening now, haven’t ya?”

Sally snickered, trailing her broad tongue down my stomach and taking the band of my boxers in her hands. “Well let’s see if I can’t rectify that.”

“Beach beach beach beach!” Sparks crowed enthusiastically, flitting about the room like an electric-blue hummingbird.

“Cool your jets thunderbug.” I chuckled, “We’ve got to wait for Sally to finish getting ready.”

“Sally! C’mooooooonnnnnn!” Sparks cried plaintively.

“Honestly Sparks, it’s not going anywhere.” Sally sighed as she entered the lounge room, her voluminous curves covered by a loose shirt and a brightly coloured sarong, a broad brimmed straw hat on her head, her horns protruding through two well-worn holes.

The doorbell intruded.

“I’ve got it. You two go wait with Tem.”

“If it’s The Order doorknocking can I fry em?” Sparks gushed enthusiastically.

“Seraphina Marie, there will be no electrocutions unless I get bored of messing with them first.” I state seriously, repressing a smile.

“You’ve changed, dad.” Sparks stated seriously, before throwing her arms around my shoulders and kissing me briefly on the cheek.

“Get on you.” I laughed, spinning her by her slender shoulders and pushing her towards Sally, before heading towards the front door.

Opening it, I see a dark haired young man shuffling his feet on the porch. Upon seeing me, his eyes go wide.

“Can I help you mate?” I ask politely, leaning on my stick nonchalantly.

“You don’t recognise me?” The young man asks, a tremor of uncertainty in his voice.

“Sorry, should I?”

“Of course not. I mean why would you? I don’t recognise you.” He admits, mouth curving into a mirthless grin.

“Sorry mate, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. Do you need me to call someone? Family or something?”

“Family…” He echoes. “It’s me.”

I frown in confusion, and he looks at me with sky-blue eyes… My eyes…

“Steve…” I choke, my hands trembling.

“Yeah… dad.”

My legs are like jelly, and I grip my stick in truth to keep from falling over.

“Sir?” Tem’s echoing voice sounds from the corner, the construct dressed in her own beachwear. On any other day, the distinction between her ordinarily impeccably conservative chauffer’s outfit and today’s bright, sunny number would be something to admire, but my mind is overwhelmed with the revelation standing before me. “Is everything alright? Should one fetch Miss Sally?”

“It’s alright Tem.” I gasp. “It’s alright… You girls go, have fun. I’ll… catch up with you.”

“Yes Sir.” Tem replies, hiding a slight disappointment behind her deference as she turns and heads back towards the garage.

I take a deep, sobering breath, opening the door and stepping aside.

“Come in.” I hear myself say, my mind still awhirl with emotion. “We clearly have a lot to talk about.”

“Did you want something to drink?” I ask, bustling needlessly in the kitchen whilst Steve stood awkwardly in the lounge.

“I’m good.” He answered, looking around.

“Well I bloody do.” I mutter to myself, pouring a generous helping of scotch into a glass before joining him in the lounge. He has a picture frame in his hands, the photo of him as a baby asleep on my chest.

“Is this me?” He asks.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

I blink “I’m sorry?”

“Why did you keep this? You didn’t call, didn’t write…”

“Your mother made it perfectly bloody clear you weren’t my son anymore.” I answer without thinking “Hell, did she even let you keep my name?”

“How long?”

“How long what?”

“How long have you been awake?” Steve demands, setting the frame roughly back on the bookshelf and turning to stare at me, a mixture of anger, hurt and confusion in his face.

“About a year, Give or take.”

“Bullshit. Nobody survives a coma for fifteen fucking years.”

“You kiss your mother with that mouth, boy?” I demand. “And speaking of your mother, what the hell is Kylie thinking just sending you over here like this?”

“She didn’t.” Steve answered, lowering his eyes guiltily. “She doesn’t know I’m here.”

“Oh merciful Christ.” I groan, tapping at my wrist.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling your bloody mother.”

“Why?”

“Because I know how I’d fucking be if our situations were reversed!”

“Why do you care?”

I fix him with a level look. “You two left ME, not the other way around, now giz a minute.”

A blip as the call connects. “Hello?” a terse, male voice answers.

“Hi, can I speak with Kylie?”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s… Mike. Mike Anderson.”

“Oh hell of all the days…” I hear the man grumble. “Look. Michael. I understand mate, really I do, and we can have this out properly soon, I promise but right now we’re a little bit preoccup…”

“Steve’s here.” I interrupt.

“Oh thank God!” The man gushes in sheer relief, and I feel a twinge of empathy with this unknown man. “Kylie! Stevey’s OK, he’s…”

The sound of a scuffle and a buffeting as a handset is seemingly grabbed from the speaker’s hand. “Hello? Hello? Who is this?” Kylie’s frantic voice demands.

“Kylie, it’s Mike.” I begin

“Michael? What the hell?!” She cries “You can’t just DO something like this!”

“Hey! He just showed up! Don’t go blaming me.”

A sigh and a slight sob. “We’ll be there soon. Don’t…” she trails off.

“See you when you get here.” I state simply, terminating the call.

Steve looks at me with a mixture of umbrage and guilt. “Sorry if I inconvenienced you…”

I scoff, taking a long drink. “Because this is so simple for me. Hell’s bells Steve, I don’t… I don’t even know where to start.”

“That makes two of us… This was a mistake. I’ll just…”

I reach out and take his arm. “No… Please… I’m sorry. Sit down.”

Steve nods, sinking into a chair. I take one opposite him, my hand still shaky around the glass.

“Why don’t you tell me how you found out, for starters?” I ask gently.

“My blood type. We had a blood drive at school, and they typed me A positive, which was funny because mum and dad…” a pause, and Steve looks at me uncertainly.

“It’s alright, go on.”

“Well they’re both type O negative. So I asked mum, and it turned into this big thing, so I went looking and found some of mum’s legal documents… You weren’t too hard to find after that.”

“The drawbacks of unwanted celebrity.” I murmur

Steve nods. “I wanted to know more, but she didn’t want to talk about it. We had a fight and I left.”

“And came here.”

Another nod “I just… I had to know…”

A pause, sound of my old clock insistent in the study beyond.

“And here we are again.” I chuckle

“Yeah.” Steve agrees, the ghost of a grin on his face. Oh God be good, I could see Kylie in that smile, and it hurt again.

“You’ve got a nice place here.” He offered

I shrug “Keeps the rain off. Benefits of undeserved largesse.”

“Undeserved? C’mon… I mean, you’re Michael Midas, man!”

“Jesus H Christ, don’t you start on that!” I groan.

“The whole thing?” Steve asked incredulously

“No word of a lie, knee high to nothing and you ate the whole bloody thing. I had to take a week off work because your mother absolutely refused to change your diapers afterward.” I laugh.

“Well that explains a bit.” Steve snickered.

The doorbell interrupted.

“That’ll be your mum” I grunted, heaving myself out of the chair.

“You alright?”

“The leg’s a bit gammy. Just gives me shit every now and then.” I explain, heading for the door. Opening it, I see Kylie’s worried face, a solid, sensible looking man around my age behind her. She looks past me, and with a low cry, rushes past to grab Steve in a crushing hug.

“I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry sweetie!” She blubs into his shoulder as he stands there shocked.

“Won’t you come in.” I murmur, slightly taken aback.

“She’s been in a proper state all day.” The man explains, holding out his hand. “Michael is it? Charles O’Connor.”

“G’day.” I reply, taking the man’s hand. “Can I offer you anything?” I ask, as Steve mumbles assurances to a distraught Kylie.

Kylie sniffs, turning to me and wiping the tears from her eyes. “Thank you Michael, no… We’ve got to pick my daughter up from Charles’s sister.”

“Daughter…” I echo as the concept crashes into me. “Right. No. Of course.”

“I’m sorry Michael, this wasn’t how…” Kylie babbles desperately.

“No, no, look, it’s fine. No harm done. We’ll do this properly some other time.” I say assuringly, fighting the turmoil in my breast.

“How are you?” She asks timidly

“I get by.” I chuckle “Got Frank, and Ethan, and… a few others.”

Yeah, not dropping the ‘I’m fucking my nurse and adopted an orphan and oh, by the way, they’re monsters’ bomb right now.

“I’m glad. I was worried…”

In spite of everything, I smile at that. “Look. I’ll be away for a week or so, but give me a call sometime. Cat’s out of the bag now, right?”

Kylie and Steve both nod at that, Charles’s expression unreadable. “I’ll meet you in the car.” He says gently to Kylie.

Kylie nods, heading to the car, Steve turning and waving uncertainly at me. I return the gesture, affecting an unworried smile.

Charles turns to me as I stand in the doorway, his face stony.

“Hell Charles, you’re not gonna read a cripple the riot act are you?” I groan slightly, leaning on my stick dramatically.

Charles blinks in surprise “What? No… I just…” He sighs, passing a hand across his eyes. “I love them, Michael. I love Steve like he’s my own blood, and Kylie… She’s my world.” He looks at me again, pleading in his eyes. “Don’t take them away from me?”

“Jesus mate.” I gasp “I’d be a proper sort of fuckhead if the thought even crossed my mind.” I extend my hand again, taking his in a warm shake. “Thank you. Thank you for giving them the happiness I couldn’t.”

Charles smiles wordlessly, an understanding, an instinctive rapport passing between us.

“You’re always welcome. All of you.” I insist.

“Thanks Michael. Glad to meet you.” Charles replies, heading towards the car.

I sigh, closing the door, my emotions a tumult within me.

“Fuck’s sake…” I grate to nobody in particular as I tap my wrist, blinking unshed tears from my eyes as they blur my vision.

“Maou’s ample bosom dad, what took you so long?!” Sparks demands, the stiff fur on her shins caked with sand and salt water.

“Something unexpected. I’ll tell you all about it later, I promise.” I reply.

“You promised we’d go fishing!” The Raiju teen insisted, stomping a bare foot on the sand.

“Oh bugger me Sparks, it’s not like we don’t have the next week here or anything!”

“Sorry… I just…” She sketches a toe in the sand, grains dropping off her at an invisible charge within her slender body. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

Wordlessly, I take her in my arms, kissing her wet, blue hair and rubbing one of her pointed ears with my hand. “I love you, kid.” I say sincerely.

Sparks squeaks, wrapping her arms around me with surprising strength. “Love you too, dad!” She replies, looking up at me with a sunny smile. “You gonna come for a swim?”

“In a bit, better give Sally a hug too, doncha think?”

Sparks rolls her eyes dramatically “Well don’t waste the WHOLE afternoon canoodling on the beach.”

I laugh, ruffling her moist hair and heading over to where Sally sat reclined under an umbrella, reading something or other, her long bovine tail twitching slightly beside her.

“What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?” I murmur, rubbing at her shoulders.

Sally chuckles, holding up a bottle of sunscreen. “While you’re back there…”

“Need me to do the front too?”

“What will my boyfriend say?”

“Meh, what kinda man is he to leave a pretty young thing like you all alone?”

“Oh, I dunno…” Sally smiles, tilting her head back and kissing me. “I kinda like him.”

“Feeling’s mutual, love.” I murmur, kissing her again for good measure.

“Mmm…” Sally mumbles happily against my lips. “Behave, we’re in public.”

“Spoilsport.” I chuckle, “Where’s Tem?”

Sally points wordlessly to where the construct is strolling along the beach next to a slimly muscular young man, probably in his mid-twenties, his hair sun-bleached and shoulder length, his skin a deep tan. He’s gesticulating avidly, and she is looking at his face with rapt interest.

As if by some unspoken summons, Tem glances over. “Sir!” She cries, looking slightly guilty.

“Don’t you dare, Tem! You’re on holiday too!” I order, smiling at the construct.

Tem nods, her blonde locks ruffling against the crystalline structures which jut from her temples and shoulders. The young man looks at me askance and I flick him a grin and a thumbs up. He returns the gesture with boyish enthusiasm.

“I’m going to lose my driver, aren’t I?”

Sally leans back against me as I rub sunscreen into her neck. “Entirely possible”

“So I promised Sparks I’d go swimming, what’s it gonna take to see you in a bikini?”

“Go swim with your daughter, you lecher.” Sally laughed, pushing me away playfully.

Stripping off my shirt, I limp towards the breakers where Sparks is valiantly trying to bodysurf.

“Oh sweet zombie Christ on a fucking pogo stick!” I groan as Sally lathers my chest with some kind of ointment.

“Does it hurt dad?” Sparks asks worriedly.

“Nah thunderbug, I’m making all this noise for fun.”

“Mean.”

“Love you.”

Sparks sticks her tongue out at me petulantly. I chuckle, the chuckle melting into a wince and a groan as Sally coats another welt.

“Did you try and wrestle with it Michael?” Sally demands, clucking her tongue at the puffy, whiplike welts coating my torso.

“Not deliberately!” I insist.

The door to the beach chalet opens, and Tem walks in with the young man she was walking with earlier in tow.

“Hello everyone.” Tem states politely “One would like you all to meet Eric.”

“We met in the car park” Sally replies sunnily, still smearing me with ointment. “Although you probably didn’t meet Michael.”

“Gudday mate” I greet the young man “You’ll have to forgive the… Ow! Shit… Attire.”

“Ooh. Know what gotcha brah?” Eric asks, wincing sympathetically.

“No idea.” I admit as Sally covers the last of the welts. “Some kind of bastard jellyfish looking for a cuddle in any case.”

“Not mamono I hope? I’ve told the girls around here to leave the guests alone.”

I look incredulously at Sally “There are mamono jellyfish?!”

Sally nods, “Though if it were…” She clarified “…She’d already be in here sitting around like she owns the place.”

“Not for long…” Sparks growled possessively, arcs of electricity playing between her fingers.

“What did I tell you about Mamonocide?” I ask sternly.

“Not until Uncle Frank finds an adequate legal defense?”

“Atta girl.”

“Honestly, you two…” Sally sighs “…but on the subject of ‘owning the place’, he does. Eric, I mean. He’s the owner.”

“Aww c’mon, it’s just a little something to pay for the surfing trips, you know?” Eric protested “I’m not some hotelier magnate or something.”

“Well it’s a nice joint mate.” I assure him, stretching as Sally puts the lid back on the ointment “And bugger me if I don’t feel a whole lot better already! What was that love?”

“Trade secret.” Sally grins at me

“Well thank you anyway.” I reply, bending to kiss her. “Now. Sorry. Did you need something from us Eric?”

Eric shook his head, his sun-bleached locks bouncing. “Nah, just wanted to let you know I’m absconding with one of your party for a couple hours.”

“Eric is… Well he’s taking one… One is going on… One will be…” Tem stammered, blushing adorably where she stood holding the young man’s hand.

“Enjoy your date.” I state simply, getting the gist of Tem’s stammering.

Tem smiled, her gemlike eyes alight. “Thank you Sir.”

“I’ll try and keep up with her.” Eric jested, glancing aside at the construct. “From her bragging, I’ll end up carrying the stock of half the carnival games.”

Tem blushed again “One only stated that one’s ability to accurately judge distance and velocity stood one at an advantage in such activities.”

“Go on, get out of here you two.” I laughed. Eric smiled, waving at us as Tem made a very reasonable attempt to look like she was not bodily dragging him out the door in her excitement.

“Carnival games?” Sparks echoed with excitement. “Why did nobody tell me about carnival games oh Maou can we go please dad pleasepleaseplease?”

“Not tonight honey.” I reply.

“Whyyyyyyyyyy?” Sparks lamented, crushed.

“Because, thunderbug.” I replied, ruffling her hair “You remember how frustrated you got when I never left you and young Trav alone long enough to do anything silly?”

“Yes.” Sparks replies, her eyes fierce.

“Well Tem’s a grown woman… Construct… Mamono… Whatever. And I don’t want to know what happens to someone who plays gooseberry on one of their dates.”

Sparks seemed to mull that over for a moment. “If he hurts her I’ll put like 6 gadjillion volts through him.”

“You’ll have to get in line dear.” Sally smiled, embracing the young Raiju warmly.

“That was nice of you.” Sally mumbled as she snuggled into me on the hammock.

“Hmm?”

“That skimboard for Sparks.”

“Well she didn’t seem to be getting the hang of bodysurfing…” I chuckle, watching as sparks launched herself through the shallows, bouncing over tiny wavelets as the now-calm waters shimmered with the sun setting behind us. Webs of electricity arced through the water behind her in her excitement.

“We’re going to have a lot of confused seagulls in the morning.”

Sally looks at me askance.

“Take a sniff, what do you smell?”

Sally inhales. “You making oysters?”

I shake my head, smiling. “Sparks’s little light show down there is roasting a few hundred sand-cockles and the like.”

“Oh… Oh dear.” Sally chuckles, nuzzling into me again and making a small noise of contentment. “So what held you up today?” She mumbled.

I take a deep breath, releasing it in a great sigh. “My son came to see me.”

“What?!” Sally cried, jolting against me. “I thought…”

“That I wasn’t a part of his life? So did I, but clearly life had other ideas.”

“Maou, what happened?”

I gave a basic outline of what had occurred that morning, omitting my omission of her and Sparks.

“So you saw her?” Sally said, a tremble in her voice.

“And her ‘new’ husband, although that’s doing the bloke a disservice. He’s been more of a father to Steve than I have.”

“That’s not your fault, and don’t change the subject.”

I kiss her pouting mouth softly. “What can I say? It hurt, but it was the pain of memory. She’s part of someone else’s life now, and so am I.”

“But she’s human.”

“And you’re gorgeous. Both are about as relevant as the other.”

“But I can’t give you…”

“Sons? Round this time last year I was resigned to having nobody in my life. Now I’ve got you, and Sparks, and now Steve’s looked me up. I’m not hurting for family, love.”

Sally looked up at me, the pout still on her lips. “You’re no fun at all when you’re mature and reasonable, you know that?”

I laugh, kissing her again.

“So what happens now?”

I watch Sparks play in the shallows for a moment. “I guess that’s up to them. It really did hit home when I saw him. Kylie was right. He doesn’t know me, and I don’t know him. There’s a young man, almost grown, where I’m expecting a baby. Sure I’d like him in my life but I think all of us have to face facts that we may have to be content just being aware of the other’s existence.”

“There are worse scenarios.” Sally offered prosaically.

I nodded affirmation. “It’s late, and I’m getting hungry. Let’s go get some food.”

Sally smiled her agreement. “Make sure you tell Sparks sooner rather than later? I get the feeling this is something you’ll need to ease her into.”

“Probably” I agree, standing and cupping a hand to my mouth. “Oi Sparks!” I yell, “Let’s go get food!”

“Coming!” she piped, grabbing her skimboard and running effortlessly up the sand towards the cabin, her wet tail sheeting water as she shook it dry.

“Maou but you snore sometimes dad.”

“That wasn’t me, that was Sally.” I murmur, taking a sip of acrid black coffee.

Sparks looks at me disbelievingly. “You’re kidding.”

I shake my head, suppressing a smile.

“Damn! Next time I’m going to record that and sell it to the shitty black metal band at school, she sounded downright possessed!”

“Try sleeping next to it.”

Sparks and I shared a laugh. Sparks looks over my shoulder and grins wider. “Look who finally decided to come back.”

I turn my head to see Tem dreamily strolling towards the chalet, her shoes held nonchalantly in one hand. Seeing me and Sparks, her gemlike eyes glitter slightly and she smiles.

“Hello Sir, Hello Little Miss”

“G’day Tem. Good night was it?” I offer delicately.

“Oh Creators and Architects, yes! One has not experienced a night like that… well… one has NEVER experienced a night like that.”

Sparks hides a giggle behind her delicate hand.

“If Sir and Little Miss will excuse one, one must retire to bed… One believes one was up all night.”

“Hah. Nice.” I laugh, “Sally’s sleeping in as well.”

Tem smiles, almost floating up the stairs as she heads into the chalet.

“Why do we have to be up so damn early anyway?” Sparks yawns

“You said you wanted to go fishing”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well the fish get up at this time of the morning.”

“And?”

“And, the first thing you do when you get up is go get breakfast, right?”

Sparks fixes me with a look “No, sometimes a crazy human takes me fishing.”

“Smartass” I snicker, ruffling her hair and offering her a muffin. Of course she goes for the chocolate.

“Don’t forget your gear.” I remind her, “I can’t carry everything.”

“Igobib” she murmurs around a mouthful of chocolate banana muffin.

I open my mouth to tell her not to talk with hers full, then realize she’s deliberately baiting me. Rolling my eyes, I pick my rod and tackle box up with one hand, leaning on my stick with the other as we head towards the jetty, the slumped figures of other fishers already present in the dim, early morning light.

“Much luck?” I ask the other fishermen. A few noncommittal grunts are my only answer.

Sparks and I unpack our gear in a free spot near the end of the jetty. I bait a hook, casting it with an even throw into the water.

“You didn’t cast very far.” Sparks remarked critically.

“Don’t have to.” I replied “The water’s all the same depth, why would we have any more luck half a mile sideways?”

Sparks shrugs, taking a skipping step and launching her bait as far away as she can.

“Showoff” I snicker. Sparks giggles, sitting down next to me on the jetty and putting her head on my shoulder.

I feel the rod jump in my hand as something hits the bait. “Whoop! Don’t get too comfortable, they’re hungry this morning!”

I reel the fish in, the rod bowing under its weight, and am rewarded with the broad silver shape of a trevally, about as long as my arm.

“Nice!” Sparks remarks appreciatively.

“You’re telling me, I’ve never seen them this big around here.”

“Merfolk’ve been farming the fish stocks. It’s startin’ to get back to as good as when I was a young fella.” An old fisherman near us explains.

“Merfolk… like mermaids?”

The old fisherman chuckles. “Been away for a while have ya mate?”

“Something like that.” I agree, unhooking the squirming fish, feeling its belly swollen with eggs. “Ah… and she’s pregnant.”

I drop the fish as gently as I can back into the water, watching as she flashes into the blue-green below us.

“Why’d you do that? Fish roe tastes awesome.” Sparks complains.

“Because we’ve got a world class seafood restaurant five minutes’ walk away? Something my dad used to teach me. Only take what you need.”

The old fisherman nodded at me appreciatively. “Wish more folks got taught that. There was a time you’d get fuckers filling bags with tiny things. No idea what they did with ‘em. Too small to be anything but bones and guts.”

Suddenly Sparks squeals, her arms jerking forward as something hits her line.

I lean concernedly over “You alright honey?”

Sparks clambers to her feet, bracing the rod against her hip and heaving against the weight on her line, her rod bowed almost double as the line hisses through the water, the drag on her reel squealing.

“Bloody fish is not going to beat me… And we are NOT throwing this one back!” She hisses, her eyes intent.

She heaves on the rod, dropping the tip to reel in the slack. Her short tail bristles behind her, and lengths of her electric blue hair begin to stand away from her body.

“No shocking.” I chuckle. Sparks turns her head to stick her tongue out at me, before returning to her fight.

I look on with baited breath, the water exploding with movement as the fish nearly breaks the surface before diving again.

Suddenly, her arms jerk and the line goes limp.

“Awww thunderbug. It was a good fight though, you did really well.”

Sparks’s mouth purses with frustration as she begins to bring her line in

“Wait…” She murmurs “There’s something still…”

Sparks brings her line in, and true to her word, a large blunt head is still firmly affixed to her hook, the toothed mouth gaping, the large eyes vacant and dull in death.

“Big mackerel.” The old fisherman remarks, looking at the ragged remains which drip seawater and gore behind the head. “Ah balls.”

Standing with a grunt, the old fisherman clears his throat. “Shark’s back.” He remarks simply, before packing his gear away. The other fishers grumble and begin mirroring his activity, the jetty rapidly emptying as they trudge back to the beach.

“What, surely one shark can’t eat THAT much.” I protest.

“You’re a free man mate, but first round down pub says I told you so.” The old fisherman drawled. Picking up his tacklebox, he paused. “Assuming you survive, of course.”

I blinked at that, Sparks looking at me askance. “Don’t ask me thunderbug, I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about.” I remarked, baiting my hook again.

“Hiya” Came a voice from the water below the Jetty. Leaning forward, I peered over to see a blunt head staring back at me, eyes fathomless black and deadly teeth bared in a rapacious grin.

“Oh. Gudday.” I remarked in dumb surprise, taken aback by the creature’s appearance. Shark girls? Now I’d seen everything.

“You ate my fish” Sparks growled at the shark.

The shark flicked her gaze momentarily at Sparks. “Tasted like my fish to me, splash off weasel, grown-ups are talking.”

Sparks made an inarticulate noise behind me, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end.

“So” The shark drawled, the flexing of her powerful tail seen dimly through the green as she floated on her back, the pale of her underside contrasting with the slate grey of the remainder of her body. “You seem to have a bit more downstairs than those other minnows…”

Her breasts broke the surface of the water, her torso sleek and muscular. Her black eyes betrayed no emotion but that toothy grin was nothing if not lecherous.

“How do you figure?” I asked, casually fixing the hook to an eyelet on my rod and picking it up with the tackle box. Every cell in my body was screaming ‘DANGER’.

“You’re not running. What’s it gonna take for me to convince you to come for a swim?”

Oh yep. Now I see what the old fisherman was talking about. As if to confirm my suspicions, the shark licked her lips, running clawed, webbed hands along her body as if to entice me.

I shook my head “Sorry, I’m spoken for.”

“What, the weasel?” The shark laughed incredulously. “You some kind of kiddie-fiddler?”

“That’s my daughter you’re talking about.” I growled.

“Oh SURE. Can’t handle a real woman?”

“We’re done. C’mon Sparks.”

The shark thrashed about, tailing us alongside the jetty. “Big man eh? Come on, get in the water and prove it, impotent old lobster-dicked cunt!”

The smell of ozone warned me, and I jerked my head around to see sparks with arms aloft, lightning arcing between her hands, her eyes glowing with the promise of violence.

“Sparks!” I snapped insistently

“One second dad… just lighting the barbecue…” Sparks rejoined, her voice deceptively sweet.

“Let it slide, Sparks.”

“I don’t think so…”

“SERAPHINA MARIE!” I barked imperiously. “You MIND me, young lady!”

Sparks fixed me with a look full of anger and frustration. With a wordless snarl, she pointed a clawed hand at a metal mooring point, releasing a series of lightning bolts which tore the air with thunderous sound. When she had finished, the mooring was nothing but a twisted parody of its former shape, smoking and charred.

“Think how easily that could have been you.” I warned the shark evenly “Now fuck off.”

The shark bobbed frozen in the water, her black eyes brimming with terror, before launching herself below the surface with a surging thrash of her tail.

I opened my arms to the young Raiju “C’mere thunderbug.”

Sparks accepted my embrace somewhat hesitantly, yet her arms lingered where they held me about the waist. We set off towards the beach, not speaking for a moment.

“Why?” She asked simply

“Why what?”

“Why do you care what happens to that sorry excuse for next week’s fish and chips?”

“I don’t. I know exactly what you would have done to her if you’d dropped the hammer. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is what it would do to you.”

Sparks looked at me in puzzlement. “Wha?”

“When I first took over AOD, I had a department lead who for some reason took an instant dislike to me. Don’t know exactly why, and to be honest I didn’t care much. It came to a head one Christmas party though. He mouthed off, and I sacked him on the spot.”

“How does that have anything to do with salty-cunt back there?”

“Language!” I remonstrated, desperately trying not to giggle at the a propos invective. “The point is, it was the first time I’d ever fired someone. The next time something came up with an employee, there was suddenly a little voice in my head going ‘Just sack the prick, you can do it, after all.’ Power is the most maddeningly addictive drug there is, and like any drug, if you let it rule you, it’ll destroy you.”

“But the things she said…”

“Were aimed at me.” I interrupted, poking her gently in the arm with the handle of my cane. “If I’d let you turn her into a $5 fisherman’s basket, what would have happened the next time someone at school got really creative with the insults?  You’d done it before after all, it would be so easy… and there are hundreds of ways to make it look like an accident…”

Sparks blushed at the realization.

“I love you, Sparks, and I don’t want to see you used as an example someday of how The Order was right.”

“Hey!”

“Look up the news when we get home. How many Mamono do they demonize for just defending themselves? How many courts do they picket when a Mamono with the cuts and bruises still fresh on her body is charged with manslaughter?”

“It’s not fair!” Sparks sniffled “I don’t want to go through life being afraid of myself!”

“Oh thunderbug. Do you think Ms Yonga relishes the fact that she’s got to play nice with spoiled brats giving her smarm on the oval when she teaches Phys Ed?”

“But she’s a Yowie.”

“And you’re a Raiju. You shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are, just be aware of it, and what it means. That guy I fired? He went bankrupt and ate a bottle of pills. His wife and kids found the body.”

“That’s not your fault.” Sparks retorted quickly

“Isn’t it? There are some who would argue otherwise. I could have put him on development probation, could have moved him to another department, pulled some strings to have a similar role ‘open up’ for him somewhere else. But I didn’t. Now whilst the law and common sense agrees with you, I still see his face in the dark sometimes, and that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life. I don’t want you to have any faces in the swarming dark looking at you accusingly.”

Sparks sniffed, rubbing her nose on the back of her hand.

“Kinda shot a nice morning, eh?”

“A bit…” Sparks agreed, before hugging me impulsively.

“Sir! Sir!” Tem called, waving to me from the beach where she stood waist deep in the shallows with Eric and an unidentified woman. Sparks quickly shed her shirt and shorts, a blue and white striped bikini underneath. I chuckled as I watched her clean-limbed form nearly fly down the beach, blasting the trio with spray as she ran to embrace the construct. I set my cane against the stairs and limped down the beach to join them, sighing with relief as the salt water took my weight.

“Michael, this is Attina, Wave-Watcher of the local Mer conclave.” Eric introduced the elegant looking woman who ‘stood’ with him.

“Ma’am.” I answered politely.

“Charmed.” The mermaid replied with a smile, her voice high and musical. Her hair was decorated with fretted coral, and the hand she offered me was webbed and sparsely coated with soft scales.

“Ms Attina was generous enough to allow one to accompany Eric to her grotto.” Tem near-gushed. “One never knew such architecture could be GROWN! One must completely re-evaluate one’s understanding of architecture! One is positively beside onesself!”

Attina gave a crystalline peal of laughter. “You are too kind, Tem.”

I look between Eric and Tem, her dressed in a simple one-peice swimsuit, the crystalline structures at her temples and shoulders glittering with seawater, him in a sleeveless wetsuit, a rebreather on his back and mask dangling on his chest.

“Didn’t know you knew how to dive Tem.”

Tem looked askance at me, her gemlike eyes glittering. “One does not, Sir.”

“Then how did you…” I trail off, gesturing at Eric’s gear

“Oh! One is capable of modifying one’s internal structure to accommodate an aquatic environment. One is very adaptable.”

Eric blushed and cleared his throat, yet said nothing.

“What’s a wave-watcher?” Sparks asked the Mermaid, looking at her with near-rapturous interest.

The Mermaid smiled indulgently at the Raiju. “I interpret the Movements of the Waters that the Laws of the Ocean may be kept amongst my people.”

“Laws eh? Is there a law against eating my fish and generally being a rude bitch?”

The Mermaid blinked in incomprehension.

“Sparks…” I chuckled.

“Sounds like a story” Eric chuckled.

“Not really. Some shark nabbed a decent mackerel off Sparks’s hook and then made an awful attempt at a pass at me. She’s lucky the thunderbug’s mature enough to listen to reason.” I replied, reaching over to ruffle Sparks’s hair.

Eric shared a look with the Mermaid. “Told her that was her last warning.”

“You did.” The mermaid agreed.

“What, you mean there is?” Sparks gushed excitedly “I was only half serious! Cool!”

The mermaid offered her another small smile “This shark is known to my people. She was not simply being rude. She was hunting. Him.”

Sparks gave an indelicate snort, “That wasn’t half obvious.”

“Not as a mate, Sparks” Eric corrected “She wanted to eat him afterwards. She’s… known for it.”

“Please understand, most Charharians are uninterested in humans, except when the season comes upon them, and are content to leave them in peace otherwise. We farm the oceans so that plenty may soothe the savage side of some of our more aggressive cousins.” The mermaid explained. “This shark in particular is rumoured to have developed a taste for higher beings, though there has never been evidence to prove such.”

“I’ll admit to arguing on her behalf.” Eric sighed “She and I… we kinda grew up together. The last time a tourist was taken away in an ambo nearly bled out from a bite though…” He trailed off, and Tem put a hand on his shoulder comfortingly.

“She was ordered to leave these shores. Now she must be… Chastized.” The Mermaid stated simply.

Sparks looked at me, her expression unreadable. “You should have let me fry her.”

“And you’d have been the person who killed Eric’s friend, Sparks. Think about it.”

Sparks’s mouth worked, seeking a retort. Finding none, she gave a sigh. “Fine. I still don’t like her though.”

“I wish I had that option.” Eric grumbled.

“Well hell, we’ve gone and brought the mood down. Sorry about that.” I apologized, the atmosphere suddenly much less convivial.

“Nah. I’m glad you told me.”

“Sir? There is one other thing…” Tem offered hesitantly

I looked over at the construct in mild surprise. “What’s up Tem?”

“One would… One wishes t-to… One is t-tendering one’s R-res…” She stammered, hands wringing under the water.

“You would abandon me, Tem?” I gasped dramatically, throwing a hand to my brow in a mock swoon.

“N-no sir! One is just… One has been offered…” Tem continued to stutter. Eric smiled at her softly, taking one of her hands in his own.

“I’ve been doing my best to poach her from you all day.” He admitted, flicking me a slightly guilty grin.

“T-there’s so much I can do here! I offered the mermaids some advice on geomorphology and Miss Wave-Watcher says it’s the best idea she’s heard in years… And there’s also…” her eyes flicked to Eric and her face flushed crimson.

I laughed helplessly, “Tem, I’m teasing. I can’t imagine a Chauffeur was the pinnacle of your life’s ambition.”

“One enjoyed being useful for Sir…” Tem replied softly.

“And I enjoyed having you around, Tem. Now, Eric, there’s a bit to do with a stick as I understand…”

“STICK?!” Tem exclaimed, suddenly animated. “One would thank sir to not refer to her control rod in such derogatory terms.”

“Sorry, sorry…” I apologised, holding my hands up. “…And we’ll pretend I wrote her a disgustingly glowing reference.”

“Wouldn’t care if you didn’t…” Eric replied absently, his face fixed on the construct’s.

“So I just take it like this…” I began, holding the elaborate crystalline rod in my right hand

“Yes Sir. And Eric, if you could please take the other end.” Tem explained, Eric taking the opposite end of the rod in his calloused hand as she directed. “Now if Sir will read the words.”

I cleared my throat, peering at the slightly crumpled piece of paper in my left hand “Why is it in Latin?”

“It is not, it is High Pandemonian”

“Looks like Latin to me…”

“Sir… One will surely find time to discuss the intricacies of causal similarity at a later point, but for now, please…” The construct near-groaned.

“Orright orright… sorry Tem.” I chuckled. “Hic ego praecipio tibi et anima mea potestate.”

“Accipio onus et officium” Eric answered, peering at his palm where he had scrawled the words.

A faint hum was felt in the rod’s core, and it glowed with a pale light which was reflected in Tem’s gemlike eyes. I felt a ‘pushing’ as the rod gently repelled my grip, remaining firmly in Eric’s grasp.

Tem embraced me wordlessly. “Thank you Michael. One enjoyed being useful for you.”

“So you DO know what my name is.” I chuckled, returning her embrace.

“It is not seemly for one to refer to her master by common appellation.” Tem answered, before releasing me and turning to Eric.

“Sir holds the authority to command one. One may not refuse any command given whilst Sir holds it.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Eric replied, holding the rod out to Tem.

“I-is Sir certain of this decision?” Tem asked softly, her heart in her eyes.

“Of course I am. I’m not interested in commanding you to do anything, Tem. I want you to be free to make your own choices.”

Tem hesitantly put her hand on the rod, which seemed to liquefy and merge with the intricate structures on her forearms. A smile spread across her face and she threw her arms around Eric, kissing him fervently.

“Of course, Eric did not even have to ask!” She breathed, before kissing him again.

“I missed something there…” Eric gasped, pushing her gently away.

“You offered one her control rod. A gesture of trust that implies a personal relationship.” Tem said with a smile.

“Relationship?!” Eric echoed in shock. “Relationship…” He repeated, looking at Tem as if seeing her for the first time. “Yeah… Yeah I could do that.”

“I am so glad I listened to Frank when he told me to never do that.” I whispered aside to Sally, who took my hand with a wordless smile, dabbing at her eyes.

“Maou… those mermaids are gonna be piiiiissed…” Sparks giggled.

“Well… Congratulations.” I offered, Tem and Eric standing hand in hand with dopey smiles on their faces.

“Cheers mate.” Eric grinned

Tem smiled at us affectionately “One insists that you come and visit!”

“Don’t worry, I think thunderbug’s got a date with a mackerel’s angrier big brother.” I chuckle, heaving the last bag into the trunk of the car.

“Damn right!” Sparks replied, before affectionately embracing Tem, and then Eric, who winced slightly at the contact shock.

Hugs and handshakes lingered all around, with promises that the visits would be soon and frequent, but goodbye can only be staved off for so long, and soon enough we were on the road again, me behind the wheel, Sally dozing gently in the passenger seat.

“Does that bother you, Dad?”

“Whazzat?”

“Having to let people go like that.”

I chuckled. “Honestly Sparks that’s the best way to do it. Tem’s found love, and a new passion, and something she can be useful with. I’d be a bastard if I insisted she stay.”

A sigh from the back seat. “Why do people have to go away?”

“She’s hardly AWAY away Sparks, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you writing or calling. But you have to let people follow where their heart takes them, even if it means them leaving.”

“You never did tell me why you were so late the first day, you know.”

I winced inwardly. “No, I didn’t…” I admitted, taking a deep breath as I plunged ahead.

Chapter 4

“And you’re SURE they don’t have any allergies?”

“Not that was mentioned.”

“Did you ask?”

I roll my eyes. “Yes. I even double checked the other day when you insisted, Sally.”

“What about gluten?”

I give a wordless groan, putting down the knife where I was cutting carrots into sticks before walking over and sliding my arms around her.

“Sally, it’s my ex-wife, not the pope. Are you alright?”

The Holstaur exhales, leaning back into my embrace. “I’m just nervous. What if they don’t like me?”

“Then they’re stupid, but in three months of phone calls and e-mails nobody has ever mentioned anything which would make me believe that they would hold that opinion.” Kissing her neck, I squeeze her gently “Plus, if by some horrible twist of fate they do have an issue with Holstauri or Mamono in general, I can get all indignant and kick them out.”

Sally chuckles, craning her head back to look at me. “You missed your calling, you ham-actor.”

“Bitch” I snicker, bending to kiss her softly.

“Swear Jar!” comes a smug cry from the lounge room.

“Oh come on!” I lament, releasing Sally “That doesn’t count!”

Sparks pokes her head over the couch, staring at me. “You nailed me on it last Thursday. Money. Jar.”

“When did you pick up an eidetic memory?” I grumble, fishing in my wallet for cash, before dropping a note into the half-full jar.

“About the same time that I started winning.” The Raiju teen replies with a grin, knees tucked under her chin and fingers buried in the stiff fur ‘cuffs’ growing out from her shins.

I look up at the tally board above the Jar, sure enough, Sparks’s ‘chore tally’ has outpaced my own.

“Oh sure, pick on the cripple…” I lament dramatically.

“Sally?” Sparks calls

“Yes Thunderbug?” Came Sally’s answer from the kitchen

“Does dad even need the stick anymore?”

“Not really, his last imaging came back fine.”

“Traitor!” I accused

“I’m Swaziland, remember?”

“It’s Switzer… Oh never mind.” I grumble, only half serious. Sparks had turned sixteen not long prior, and considering the somewhat exclusive nature of her school, a number of her peers had received shiny new cars for their birthdays. She took the absence of her own vehicle with good grace, but I could tell she was disappointed in ‘missing out.’ I wanted her to earn her car, but was concerned how a part-time job would impact on her studies, or how it would affect her for her peers to see her flipping burgers or stocking shelves.

It was Sally’s stroke of genius to implement a ‘swear jar’. Feigning being driven to distraction by my constant invectives, and claiming Sparks picking up on it, she demanded our agreement with all the nicety of a drill sergeant. Condition was, whoever did the most chores around the house, got the jar when it was full.

Of course I regularly ‘forgot’ to write down things I did around the house, and occasionally the notes I slipped in were on the larger size. Adopted or otherwise, there seems to be something in the male brain which is not satisfied unless his daughter is being spoiled.

“Don’t sulk Dad.” Sparks chided, sidling over to where I sat on the couch and leaning her head against my arm.

“Hmm? Oh, I wasn’t… just off with the fairies, I guess.”

“Better not, Sally’ll kill you.” Sparks snickers

“Huh? You mean…”

Sparks rolls her scintillating blue eyes. “Yes dad, Fairies are a thing.”

“And you don’t mean the pretty young lads who dance on floats in the Mardi Gras?”

“That’s alp bait dad, we’ve been over this.”

“Kinda funny that you Mamono are all about ‘tolerance’ when it comes to you, yet you give the poofs a hard time.” I chortle, ruffling Spark’s hair.

“Not exactly Michael” Sally replies, wiping her hands as she hands sparks and myself a glass of lemonade, before sitting and sipping her own. “It’s more that they confuse the succubi, which most of us find hilarious. Hence the ‘bait’ part.”

“I’ve still never understood how all that works exactly.” I begin, setting my drink on a coaster.

“What’s to understand? They either want it or they don’t.” Sally replies simply, giving a shrug which causes her voluminous bust to jiggle deliciously.

“Then what about that massive case which Frank is looking to destroy his liver over?”

Sally gives a snort “That smells of Order funding. Clearly they filled that girl’s head with a bunch of nonsense before she got to come to terms with it.”

“Don’t you mean boy?”

Sally shook her head. “The change is absolute. In a way Alps are the lucky ones. They’re probably some of the most adaptable Mamono in existence. Their form is completely driven by their own desires. Given sufficient impetus some have even mutated to be indistinguishable from merfolk.”

“You act like they’re given a choice. All the alps I’ve ever seen are complete pushovers, completely reliant on their ‘daddy’.” I retort, the curling my lip at the last in profound distaste.

“Because they want to be. You know Denise who runs the Laughing Mantis?”

“Who doesn’t? Anyone in a fifty kilometre radius knows her kitchen staff by name and all her favourite insults for them.”

Sally nods meaningfully.

“No shit…” I breathe, my eyes wide in amazement. “What… did she…”

“She’s exactly who she wants to be.”

A ‘ding’ interrupts the conversation.

“That’ll be the oven” Sally remarks, standing and clopping purposefully on digitigrade hooves back into the kitchen.

“For the love of Christ, Sally, it’s a lunch, not a Christmas buffet!” I groan “How much are you making?!”

“Let me do my thing, Michael” comes the terse demand from the kitchen.

I grumble acceptance, turning back to Sparks. “At least you’re acting sane about this.”

“Mmm” Sparks grunts noncommittally.

“Honey…” I chide gently “…If you’re uncomfortable with this why did you say you were fine when I asked?”

“Because I know it’s important to you and I didn’t want you to hate me for it.” Sparks replies softly, refusing to meet my gaze.

“Seraphina Marie, I would NEVER be mad at you for being honest with me.”

“He’s got a family. Why’s he gotta come take mine?”

“Who?”

“Your ex’s kid.”

“Oh Sparks” I sigh, holding the Raiju to me, ignoring the light contact shock. “Nobody’s taking anyone. I’ve got an opportunity to re-connect with some people who used to be very, very dear to me. That doesn’t mean I’ve come to love you any less.”

“You mean it?”

“Cross my heart.” I murmur, kissing the top of her head.

The doorbell sounds, breaking our moment. “That’ll be them. Be nice, yeah?”

“You are guaranteed ‘civil’, nice requires double chocolate brownies.”

“Criminal.” I snicker, heading up the hallway and opening the door.

“Hey other dad” Steve says with a slight grin, Kylie and Charles standing with him.

“Gudday” I reply, pulling him into a one-armed hug, before shaking hands warmly with Charles and giving Kylie a chaste peck on the cheek.

“And who do we have here?” I ask, looking at the black-haired cherub who was peering questioningly at me from a pram.

“This is Anna.” Charles replied.

“Hi Anna.” I coo, waving at the baby, who giggled and kicked her little feet.

“Well, no sense standing out here. Come in, come in!” I insisted, ushering them inside.

“Wow, is that a real Rembrandt?” Charles asked, pointing to a painting on the wall.

“Pfft, no. You think I’d keep anything that irreplaceable in the house with a teenage tesla coil?” I chuckle.

“Must be difficult.”

“Yeah. Worth every minute though.” I smile as we head into the lounge, Sparks reclined with an expression of feigned disinterest as she ostensibly flips through something on a tablet.

“I’d like you to meet my daughter. This is Charles, Kylie and…”

“Sparks?!” Steve exclaims in disbelief.

“Steve?!” Sparks replies in surprise, almost exploding from the couch. “What are you doing here, I thought you said you had family stuff to do toda…” A pause as the penny drops.

Steve turns to me, his face a mask of surprise, with a hint of accusation. “I thought you said you had adopted a Raiju.”

“I am a Raiju, dummy. What did you think I was, a Kitsune with interesting taste in hairstyle?” Sparks barks derisively.

“Well I…” Steve floundered.

“Think she nailed it.” Charles murmured, his voice shaking with suppressed amusement. I can only smile and nod in reply.

“Well I suppose that’s one way to break the ice.” Sally sighs, clopping over to us with a sunny smile. “Hi, I’m Sally, Michael’s partner.”

“Don’t listen to her! She’s a slave driver who works me to within an inch of my life!” I hiss jokingly.

“Michael!” Kylie and Sally chide simultaneously before glancing at each other, a slow, shy smile building on their faces.

Of course I did that deliberately. Do try to keep up.

“So…” I sigh, sitting back in my chair and sipping at the perspiring beer bottle in my hand “…Are we going to get the story?”

“Remember how I told you I had someone coming over tomorrow to help with my composition homework?” Sparks remarked, profoundly unamused with the situation. “Well, you’ve met Steve.”

Steve gave a slight grin “Well there’s one thing, Sparks, at least we’ve got a reason for you peering at me going ‘I swear I know you from somewhere’ every five minutes.”

“I do not!”

“You really do.”

“How’s that work anyway?” I interrupt, stemming the inevitable and pointless to-and-fro “Don’t you have a final piece to do or something? Rasmussen’s graduation concert’s a bloody huge event, after all.”

Steve gave a guilty grimace “To be honest it’s pulling my proverbial out of the fire. I can WRITE music like nobody’s business…” He holds out his hands, turning them over in front of his face. “But these graceless hamhocks are doing me no favours when it comes to performance.”

“So you help Sparks with her composition…”

“And she does the lion’s share of mine on performance night, whilst I still get full credit for the piece.”

“Well at least you know who to blame for having oven mitts for hands now.” Sparks murmurs smugly

“Oi!” I retort

“Gotcha Dad.” Sparks snickers.

“When did this become my fault?” I grumble. “I need a reload, anyone want one?”

“Oh, you could twist my arm” Charles replied.

“Vodka Pineapple love?” Sally asked.

“Ooh, that sounds lovely.” Kylie remarked

“Two?”

“Will madam require anything further?” I drawl mockingly

“No, I think we’ll be fine.” Sally rejoined, not rising to the bait.

Anna squirmed in her pram and began to fuss.

“I think someone else is thirsty…” Kylie chuckled, digging through a bag for a bottle. Pausing, she turned to Charles. “Hun, you did pack the formula, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s in the black bag… which is on top of the counter back at home…” Charles groaned, facepalming.

Kylie rolled her eyes, sighing. “Nothing for it, I suppose… Michael, do you know the closest place we could pick up some baby formula?”

I paused in fixing the drinks, furrowing my brow in thought. “There’s a convenience store about ten minutes’ drive from here, not sure what their hours are like on the weekend.”

Kylie fixed her husband with a disapproving stare.

“Erm… If it’s not being too forward… we… may have something suitable…” Sally offered tentatively.

Kylie looked at the Holstaur askance, before her eyes widened in comprehension.

“Oh!” She gasped, “Oh we couldn’t possibly, it’s much too generous an offer.”

“Not at all!” Sally objected “We have plenty and I’d much rather little Anna not go hungry.”

“Well… I mean if you’re sure it’s no trouble…” Kylie replied hesitantly

Sally smiled “I’ll go get some right now.”

“Holstaur milk…” Charles chuckled. “She’s gonna be very disappointed when she gets home and is back to formula.”

“You did bring the warming unit though, didn’t you?” Kylie asked.

“Ah. Yeah, she’ll probably need that.” Charles admitted with a sheepish grin.

“You’ve only had two beers mate!” I snicker

“I blame sleep deprevation.”

“I hear you. When Steve was a little guy…” I begin, before breaking off, my eyes self-consciously flicking between my ex-wife, my son, and his stepfather.

Charles smiled in understanding. “It’s an interesting situation, to be sure. Gonna go give Sally a hand.”

“Why on earth are you looking at the Korg?” Sparks’s voice intrudes where she is unashamedly staring over Steve’s shoulder, him having pulled out his PC to cover the slight awkwardness we had found ourselves in.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s shit!”

“Swear Jar.” I state sternly

“Put it on my tab, this is important!” Sparks declared, waving dismissively at me before turning back to Steve. “You want that Yamaha.”

“Do you see how many zeroes are on the end of that price tag, Sparks?”

“Have you heard it play?”

“Well no, but…”

Sparks gave an exasperated sigh, grabbing Steve by the wrist and nearly hauling him to his feet.

“Woah, what are we…” he exclaims in surprise

“You are going to learn about pianos.” Sparks declares, dragging him into the house.

“She’s… assertive.” Kylie offers, an amused smile on her face.

I nod in agreement “Yeah, every day’s a new battle, and she keeps changing the bloody rules of engagement.”

“You love her though.”

“Like she was my own.”

“I’m sorry, Michael… Keeping Steve from you… It was a mistake.”

“Hey, you made the decision you thought was right. I don’t blame you.”

“Liar.”

I chuckle in spite of myself “Okay so I might have blamed you a lot at first. Now though?”

“How do you feel about me now?” Kylie asks bluntly

“Straight to the guts of it…” I grumble.

Kylie shrugs, “When am I going to get the chance to ask you again?”

“And if I tell you I’m still madly in love with you and demand you run away with me this instant?”

Kylie fixes me with a level stare “Stop fucking about with me, Michael.”

“You never did have much tolerance for my bullshit.” I chuckle. “Alright Kylie. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care about you, but even if I don’t remember it, it’s more apparent every day that the world’s moved on from fifteen years ago. You’ve got Charles, I’ve got Sally, and we’d be absolute fools to throw them away trying to recapture a time that’s well and truly gone.”

Kylie smiles slightly “Should that sting? That stings a little.”

“It does.” I agree.

“I never picked you to date a Holstaur though.” Kylie chuckled.

“Kylie hun, the last time we spoke this candidly, I didn’t know what a Holstaur was!” I laughed helplessly.

“…So she just winds up and punches her.” Charles slurs, gesticulating with his glass.

“I was provoked!” Kylie insists, blinking owlishly.

“You punched a Red Oni?” Sally asks incredulously.

“Right in the babymaker!” Kylie insists. “Nearly broke my damn wrist but the bitch just howls with laughter and declares something about my bravery in defending my husband and that I was morally obligated to drink with her.”

“She was hung over for three days.” Charles snickers.

I laugh uproariously. “I can top that. Sally saved me from a Lilim.”

Now it was Charles’s turn to stare unbelievingly at me.

“Get out.”

“No word of a lie, it was at some foundation sundowner thingy… oddly enough it was the night me and Sally got together.” I insisted.

“Sure the Lilim wasn’t just a distraction for her to make a move?” Kylie snickered

“Pfft… That’s the equivalent of you asking a Crown Princess to babysit. I am nowhere near that well connected.” Sally retorts, giving Kylie a playful shove.

“No need to get pushy!” Kylie giggles, grabbing at Sally’s wrists. The two women mock-toustle for a moment, both giggling hysterically before Kylie ends up staring directly at Sally’s chest. “By God. Sally, hun, your tits are ridiculous.”

Sally grins lopsidedly at her. “You’re not exactly small yourself, for a human.”

“Yeah but I’ve had two kids!”

A shadow of pain passes across Sally’s eyes.

Kylie releases her grip on the Holstaur. “Hun?” she asks gently.

Sally promptly bursts into tears, sobbing against Kylie’s shoulder.

“Sally, whazzamatter?” I slur concernedly, getting up and hurrying unsteadily around the table.

“I-I’m sorry!” She lows, tears cresting down her cheeks.

“Whatever for Sally?” Kylie asks softly, stroking her thick cinnamon hair comfortingly.

“I’m so useless!”

“You’re being silly, whatever would give you that idea?”

Sally sniffs, fixing me with a look of guilt and sorrow “B-because I can’t g-give Michael childreeeeennnnn”

“Hey…” I murmur, putting my hand on Sally’s shoulder where she wept in Kylie’s arms. Kylie looked at me, giving an imperceptible shake of her head. I backed away quietly, taking another drink, both puzzled and concerned at Sally’s outburst.

“I-it was my first year of University…” Sally began hesitantly “I met… someone. I was young, foolish, I didn’t see the warning signs until it was too late. He was… controlling… violent. I thought if I just tried hard enough, I could make him happy.”

“Babe, you don’t have to…” I objected softly.

“If I don’t tell you when I’m this drunk, I’m never going to tell you Michael!” Sally snapped at me.

I raised my hands apologetically, and Sally sniffed before continuing.

“When I found out I was pregnant he went into a rage. Called me every name under the sun, said there was no way he could have gotten a cow pregnant… Then he hit me, and kept hitting me, and kept hitting me… Then everything went black. When I came to, I was in the hospital, and he was dead. Nobody’s ever told me how he died… I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely honest with you, Michael. The physio work wasn’t the first time I met Frank. He was assigned by the embassy to be my legal representation in case charges were ever filed.”

“Nobody would ever blame you sweetheart.” Kylie murmured, her eyes fierce.

Sally sat up, squeezing Kylie’s hand and smiling her thanks.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you Michael.” Sally apologised. I took her face in my hands, and kissed her tenderly.

“It’s alright love. Everything’s alright.”

“Y-you’re not angry?”

“Pfft…” I snorted dismissively “…Sparks is two handfuls and change already, and that’s without money being a problem. And besides, if we decide we want a little one, there are more than enough children in this world in need of a family, Human and Mamono.”

“It’s not the same…” Sally objected

“You’re right, it’s not.” I agreed “But I love you just the same, Sally. It changes nothing.”

Sally sniffed and she smiled up at me, her limpid brown eyes filled with wordless love and gratitude. Wiping her eyes, she looked over to Charles and Kylie, who sat hand in hand, genuine concern in their gazes.

“I’m sorry. We were having such a nice night…”

“Nah. Better an honest confession to end the evening than me throwing up all over the place, which is where I was headed if we kept drinking like we were.” Charles chuckled, pushing his glass away from himself.

“What time is it anyway?” Kylie asked, before looking at her PC and gasping in surprise. “Oh good God, it’s nearly midnight!”

I chuckled, standing unsteadily. “Well neither of youse are driving tonight, that’s for sure. C’mon, I’ll get the guest room set up for you.”

“I can’t believe Anna’s still asleep.” Charles chuckled, shaking his head.

“She woke up once or twice, but she’s been a very good girl.” Sally replied, gently placing a hand on the baby’s soft black hair.

“I’ll check her diaper, if you wouldn’t mind sorting the big kids out.” Kylie murmured, scooping the baby out of the pram and heading inside.

Charles nodded, following her inside. After a moment, he stuck his head back out, a grin plastered on his flushed face.

“You have to see this.” He snickered.

Sally and I followed him into the lounge, Steve had sprawled out, half reclined on the couch, and Sparks had nuzzled herself into the crook of his arm, her legs curled up beside her. Both were clearly and unarguably out for the count.

“Should we wake them up?”

I shook my head “Nah, I’ll toss a blanket over ‘em. Sparks knows where her room is and that couch is damn comfy.”

“From experience eh?” Charles chuckled knowingly.

I elbow him jokingly. “Don’t you bloody start in on me, Charles. It’s bad enough with the womenfolk.”

I awoke to a shriek, and as my feet hit the floor, a pained yell and the muffled thump of someone hitting the loungeroom carpet. I staggered out to see a wild-eyed Sparks, her hair standing on end, little arcs of electricity playing in her eyes.

“Whatareyoudoinginmyhouse?!” She demanded, still clearly not fully awake.

Steve groaned where he lay on the floor. “Whose hands were on whose butt, Sparks?” He glowered at the startled Raiju.

“T-that’s not the point. I thought you went home!”

Steve blinked, taking in the early morning light. “Obviously not. Do you usually shock first, ask questions later?”

“Only every chance she can get.” I chuckle, the laugh becoming a groan as the adrenaline faded and the full pitiless extent of my hangover became evident.

“You look like shit Dad.” Sparks remarked.

“Swear Ja… ulp…” I began, as my stomach roiled. “Hold that thought.”

“Put on some pants too!” Sparks called after me as I hurried to be sick.

A distant part of my mind wanted to retort that I was wearing shorts and she was the one who had screamed, as I retched noisily into the toilet bowl.

“Ohhh Maou…” I heard Sally moan from the bedroom.

Staggering over to the basin, I rinsed my mouth out thoroughly before heading back into the bedroom, grabbing a pair of tracksuit pants.

“Are you alive love?” Sally queried, looking blearily at me.

“In theory, I’m thinking Coffee and all the damn grease.”

“Sweet Queen of Hell, yes…” Sally groaned after me as I staggered back out to the lounge.

Sparks looked at me in slight amusement. “Better.” She quipped.

I stared nonplussed at the Raiju “Behave, or I put all the photos I took last night on the internet.”

Sparks looked at me in shock “What photos?”

I grinned, and said nothing, heading into the kitchen.

“This means war Dad!” Sparks yelled.

“Oh, so now you declare it officially? Does the ambassador for the Axis want crispy or chewy bacon?”

“Crispy, and you’re totally the Axis.”

“Whatever makes you happy kid.” I chuckled, rummaging through the cupboards.

“Oh god…” Charles groaned, pacing into the kitchen, his face pale and drawn.

“Morning, ibuprofen’s in the third cupboard by your head.”

“You are my own personal Jesus Christ mate… Why did you let me drink so much?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time, how’s Kylie and the bub?”

Charles popped a couple of pills into his mouth, swallowing them dry. “They’re fine, Anna slept through the night, amazingly enough. If that’s what Holstaur milk does I think I need to make some sort of agreement with Sally.”

“I’d talk to a doc first before putting her on it regularly.” I remarked, remembering Sparks’s rather spectacular reaction to it.

“Good point.” Charles agreed, pouring himself a glass of juice and sipping gingerly.

“Morning!” Kylie near-sang, breezing past the two of us with a smug expression, Anna burbling happily in her arms.

I scowl at her back. “Oh yeah, I forgot… She doesn’t get hangovers.”

“Just not fair, is it?”

I snickered, joining Charles in the shared joke, before grabbing a bowl and starting to prepare the eggs.

“Urghhh. I almost feel Human again.” Charles moaned, rubbing his stomach.

“Mmm… I should get you to make me breakfast more often love.” Sally murmured around a mouthful of eggs.

“What, and have you get used to the one brownie points card I haven’t played to death?” I grin, sipping my coffee.

“Are you sure it’s alright for Steve to stay today?” Kylie asks uncertainly.

“Well Sparks did arrange for him to come over the other day, fact that I find out it’s him is kind of irrelevant at this point though… As long as they don’t spend the ENTIRE day watching cartoons!”

“It’s not cartoons dad…” Sparks sighs petulantly.

“Right…” I snort.

“Did you want a hand cleaning up?” Charles asks politely. I wave him off.

“Nah mate, you guys have a drive ahead of you, I’ll make sure Steve’s not home too late.”

“Thanks Michael” Charles grins, Kylie hugging Sally affectionately.

“Remember what I said hun, you need a girl’s night, you call me.” Kylie insists, Sally nodding with a warm smile, before turning to me.

“Thanks Michael. That was… a really great night.” She offers sincerely, smiling at me with warm affection.

For the first time in what seems like forever, that smile doesn’t bring pain. I find myself smiling back, in spite of everything.

“Drive safe you two.”

I closed the door behind them, before turning and heading back down the hallway. Sparks and Steve are still staring dully at the screen, the highly stylized animation they are watching reminiscent to me of some kind of fever dream. Sparks is leaning on his arm again, which he has absently draped over her shoulders.

“Got over the surprise then?” I drawl. Sparks looks at me, and then realizes where she is sitting. Her eyes go wide before she jerks away from Steve as if he had suddenly become red hot. Steve clears his throat, his ears red with embarrassment.

“D-Don’t get the wrong idea dad.” Sparks stammers.

“Yeah, we were just…” Steve begins, searching for an explanation.

“Whatever. Don’t you two have a composition you’re supposed to be working on?” I snicker.

“We probably should.” Steve murmurs in reluctant agreement.

Sparks sniffs nonchalantly “It’s your grade…”

“Hey, you promised!”

Sparks rolls her eyes. “Oh fine, use logic on me.” She groans, hopping up and leading Steve down to her room.

I shut off the screen. “Peace…” I sigh, putting my arms around Sally and nuzzling into her neck “Blessed Blessed Peace…”

A discordant sound rings through the house, and I imagine I can see the walls shake.

“Where did you say you put those painkillers, Love?” Sally asks softly, wincing at the noise.

A complex trill of organ notes greets us as we walk through the front door. Sally and I had borne the hesitant stop-start of music and the incoherent if passionate arguments which had begun Sparks and Steve’s ‘Composition’ with good grace for as long as we could before admitting defeat. A leisurely lunch and welcome time alone in each other’s company had put us in a much better mood, and Sally even smiled as she heard them practicing.

“Have they gotten better since this morning or is it just me?” She asked, tucking an errant strand of hair back behind one of her curved ivory horns.

“They don’t seem to be trying to weaponize sound anymore, I’ll admit.” I replied, tossing my keys onto the coffee table absently.

Sally sighed. “We should probably get to cleaning…”

“I’ll do the back, you do the kitchen?” I offered. Sally looked at me with a nonplussed expression.

“Hey.” I replied, raising my hands “You didn’t look out there, trust me, you’re getting the better end of the deal.”

“We weren’t THAT bad, were we?”

“It always looks worse the next day love.” I sigh, searching through the drawers for bin bags before heading outside.

As I began emptying, stacking and clearing the myriad plates, platters, bottles and glasses which had accumulated from what had begun the previous afternoon as an innocent Saturday lunch and had progressed into a drunken feast as the night wore in, I dimly noticed the music had stopped.

“Nope, it still doesn’t work.” I heard Sparks insist. “That tenor line just sounds so BORING.”

“Well I don’t know what else we could do with it.” Steve replies, soft harmonious sound of a string instrument being put down.

“You could try my idea.”

“I’m not singing.”

“Why not? I heard you before, you’re good!”

“When before?”

“When you were… When you were in the shower and don’t get the wrong idea I was only walking past it wasn’t like I was listening or anything!” Sparks desperately babbled.

Sound of Steve laughing. “I feel so violated!”

“D-dummy… don’t make fun of me.”

“Alright alright Sparks, we’ll give it a try, but no promises.”

The piece began again, the sound much more polished from a morning of repetition. Suddenly I heard a rich tenor pick up the melody, his voice throbbing with exquisitely controlled vibrato. I stopped in my tracks, listening, the trash bag forgotten in my hand. Then, another voice, clear and high, dancing effortlessly along the harmony as the music built and swelled, joining together in an exquisite crescendo which took my breath away. Like a rolling wave, the melody subsided, gently fading into a minimalist close, a simple piano line which faded softly into the ether.

“Wow…” I heard Steve gasp. Damn right boy!

“That was…” Sparks answered, her voice breathy.

“If we BOTH don’t get distinctions from that then the fucking thing’s rigged!” Steve near-crowed.

“Yeah…” Sparks agreed. Was that a note of… disappointment?

Shaking my head, I dumped the trash bag into the bin, heading towards the door. Sally was waiting there, her expression stony and something held in her hand.

“What’s the matter Love?” I asked, suddenly concerned.

“Steve’s bag was on one of the chairs. I picked it up to straighten up in the lounge room and this fell out.” She held out a book, bound in white leather.

“What’s this?” I asked, taking the book from her shaking hand and flipping over the cover.

“Oh nothing. Just the fucking Doctrines of Ilias.” Sally near-snarled, her shoulders trembling with suppressed fury.

My grip tightened on the book and I fixed Sally with a steady gaze.

“I’ll talk to him Sally, you have my word.” I promised sincerely, flipping to the first chapter.

“What in Maou’s name are you doing?” Sally asked incredulously.

“Finding out exactly what kind of filth he’s filling his stupid head with so I can chew fucking strips off him love.”

“W-well… good… I think…” Sally mumbled, her anger subsiding.

“Give me a bit?”

Sally nodded, wordlessly kissing me, as if desperate to assure me of her love.

The onionskin pages crackled as I turned them. “Take Heed and bear thee witness, O Children of Humanity…” it began “…For I am Ilias, thy Divine Sovereign and The God above all, and I command this world to be…”

“Can Steve come over again later this week?” Sparks gushed as I headed out to the car with Steve.

“We’ll see.” I grunted, not trusting my emotions.

“But the recital’s not far off and…”

“I said we’ll see!” I barked, Sparks taken aback suddenly by my vehemence.

I sighed. “I’m sorry Sparks… We’ll talk about it when I get home.”

Sparks nodded, uncertainty still present in her scintillating eyes, her electric blue hair swaying gently in the breeze as she waved hesitantly to Steve. Steve returned the gesture, blissfully unaware… Though not for bloody long, I would make sure of that.

I’ll admit, my driving was a touch aggressive, and Steve looked over at me with an expression of mild concern.

“Dad? Is everything OK?” He asked hesitantly.

“You tell me Steve.” I grated, digging into the pocket of my jacket and dropping the Ilian tome in his lap. “You tell me why you brought that… SHIT into my house, and I’ll tell you if I’m alright.”

“Dad, it’s not what it…”

“Don’t get too comfortable with calling me ‘dad’, Steve…” I growl “…Have you even READ that sewage?”

“Well yeah, but I…”

“…And the pollution of these chimerae shall be driven from thy lands, so spurnest thou the Mamono, and render unto them neither pity nor kindness, but crush them without mercy beneath thy heel…” I quoted, my lip curled with avid distaste. “You feel that way about Sally? About fucking SPARKS?!”

“Well of course not but I…”

“Then WHY Steve? Fucking tell me WHY!”

“I’M FUCKING TRYING!” Steve yelled, pounding a fist on the dash in frustration. “You’re right! It’s shit! Awful, terrible stuff! It makes me sick just to look at it! I’d sooner eat broken glass than speak kindly of anything in this fucking book!”

“Then why?”

“Because my best fucking friend since forever has bought it, hook, line and fucking sinker. And if I’ve got any chance, ANY chance of bringing him back to sanity…” Steve paused, sobbing, tears streaming down his face. “…I had to see… I had to know…”

Indicating, I pulled off the road into a side street and put the car in park. I leaned over, putting my hand on his shoulder, and Steve clung to me, weeping like a broken hearted child.

“I’m so sorry Stevey.” I murmured desperately. “I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Yeah.” Steve sniffed, wiping his face on his sleeve. “But I get why you didn’t.”

“Forgive me?”

Steve nodded, smiling. “Now I know where I get the temper from.”

We shared a small laugh at that, our fledgling relationship shaken, yet still thankfully whole. We drove the rest of the way talking of unimportant things, not really caring what was said, just assuring each other that we were still here, that things were still OK.

“Well, here we are.” I state simply as we pulled into Kylie’s drive.

“Thanks… So can Sparks and I still practice later this week?”

“You’d better! She’ll zap me into catatonia otherwise.” I chuckle.

Steve opened the door, the white leather tome sitting forgotten in the footwell.

“You forgot the asswipe.” I drawl. Steve gave a mirthless chuckle.

“Keep it. Burn it. I don’t care, I’ve gotten what I needed from it. To be honest I only had it in my bag so mum wouldn’t find it and lose her shit.” He smiled briefly, as if remembering something. “You want to know something funny? Mum’s been running a shelter for a few years now, somewhere that displaced Mamono can be safe until their ‘Embassy’ finds something for them. Before she heard about you adopting Sparks, she was having second thoughts about talking to you at all.”

I chuckle helplessly. “Once again, the thunderbug up and brings a miracle into my life.”

Steve nodded, his smile broadening. “Seems like she’s good at that… Look after her, dad?”

“You know it son. Love to Charles and your mum for me.”

“I will. See you.”

I waved again as he closed the door, taking a deep, shuddering breath before reversing out of the driveway. As I drove along the winding road back home, I leaned over, grabbing the book from the seatwell. Pausing only to open the window, I hurled it viciously out of the car, watching in my rear view mirror as its spine burst on the road, pages scattering like autumn leaves.

“Good bloody riddance.” I muttered, my heart feeling much, much lighter.

It was dark when I pulled into my driveway, gravel crunching softly beneath the tyres. Flickering light played from the windows, and I groaned inwardly. Sparks was upset.

“Sparks? Honey?” I called as I hesitantly paced up the hallway. I saw Sally’s figure standing outside her doorway, silhouetted in the strobing flashes which came from her room.

“You spoke to him?” Sally asked, taking my hand.

I nodded, squeezing her hand assuringly. “Everything’s sorted now.”

“Is he…”

I leaned in, kissing Sally softly. “Stick around, I don’t like recounting making an ass of myself so much that I want to do it twice.”

Sally’s entire body seems to relax in sheer relief. I peep into Sparks’s room, with not a little trepidation, I’ll admit. Her meltdowns were definitely something which needed to be handled delicately once in full swing, for the sake of one’s health, if nothing else.

Sparks was lying prone on the bed, her face buried in her pillow and her shoulders shaking with sobs. Arcs of electricity branched out, bonding to the elaborate ‘canopy’ (in truth, a well-disguised faraday cage) that we had built after her little encounter with Holstaur milk.

“The light show’s very pretty, thunderbug, but can you turn it off so we can talk?”

“We’re talking from here.” Sparks sniffed.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier, sweetheart. I should control my temper better.”

Sparks raised her head, her tear-streaked eyes sparkling with the tiny blue sparks which lent her the namesake.

“You think I’m upset over that?” she remarked incredulously “Get over yourself dad.”

“Hey.” I retorted “That’s not very nice.”

“Life sucks, get a fucking helmet.”

“Funny. I thought I adopted a Raiju, not an Emo-youkai.”

The arcing electricity stopped, and she cocked her head.

“Emo-youkai?” She echoed, desperately trying to hold back a giggle.

“Thought you’d like that one.” I grinned, sweeping aside the wire-lined ‘curtain’ and sitting next to her on the bed.

“Now what’s the problem?”

“Steve’s a shit.”

“How did we go from ‘Please can he come over later to this week’ to ‘He’s a shit?”

Sparks clasped her hands in her lap, tiny arcs of electricity dancing along her fingers. “He’s Order, isn’t he?”

“Now who told you that?” I asked mildly, turning my head to look levelly at Sally, who had the good grace to look somewhat abashed.

“Y-you mean he’s not?” Sparks murmured, looking up at me, her eyes wide and vulnerable, her fuzzy, pointed blue ears flat against her scalp.

“Absolutely not. He had the doctrines in his bag, I won’t lie, but he’s trying to help someone who’s swallowed their filth. The easiest way to fight something is to understand it after all.”

“He could have been lying…”

I snorted, booping her on the nose with a finger. “Thunderbug, his mother is the sort of woman who has punched an Oni in the ovaries. She also runs a shelter for Mamono. Realistically speaking, if Steve was Order, his lifespan would be measured in picoseconds if she ever found out.”

“Kylie punched an Oni?”

“Yes she did.”

“Wow… I’m actually starting to understand what you saw in her. She’s pretty cool… for a Human.”

I put an arm around her. “Yeah, but Sally’s cooler.”

Sparks rolls her eyes. “Kissarse.”

“Swear Jar.” Sally and I both declare in unison.

Sparks sniffs loftily. “I’m traumatized. I deserve an exception!”

“Traumatized? Why did it bother you so much when you thought Steve might be Order?”

“Because it hurt… we worked really well together today, and if he was Order it meant everything we shared would have meant nothing. He probably wouldn’t ever speak to me again after the recital…”

Realizing what she is saying, Sparks stiffens up, her tail standing straight out and bristling like a bottlebrush. “N-not that I like him or anything! D-don’t get the wrong idea!”

“Of course.” I snickered, ruffling her hair.

“Goway!” Sparks pouts, mortified, her cheeks flaming as she stuffs her face back into the pillow.

“Alright, guess that third hot fudge sundae gets split between me and Sally…” I concede, standing and walking to her door. Suddenly a rustling noise behind me and a weight on my back as slender limbs wrap around my shoulders and waist.

“Bring me to ice cream and nobody gets hurt.” Sparks grumbles from my back, lightning playing on a hand she holds in front of my face.

Sally and I burst out laughing, as I take the non-arcing hand gently in my own, kissing it softly and carrying her piggy-back into the kitchen.

“Sounds intense” Frank chuckled, leaning back slightly in his chair.

I took a draw on the cigar in my hand. “Mate you don’t know the half of it.”

“So you and Kylie have buried the hatchet?”

“Yeah… It’s funny, even after all the time apart, we’ve still got so much in common. Her with the shelter, me with Sparks.”

Frank took a sip of his scotch, looking levelly at me. “Not having second thoughts about Sally, I hope?”

“Are you having second thoughts about Kayo?”

“Point taken.” Frank chuckled. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“The Shelter, actually. I’d like to know a bit more about it, and I know Kylie will skin me for a new handbag if I just go bulling in and acquire the thing, she always did like her own projects.”

“But that is the end goal here.”

I shrugged, moving my hand to and fro. “It might be, it all depends. Kylie’s not one to waste her time on a poor investment.”

“Present company excluded…”

“Fuck you.” I snorted around my cigar, flipping him the bird. “And I won’t even pay that burn because it’s bloody inaccurate. As much as I hate this ‘Midas’ nickname that’s seemingly followed me through my little nap, I know business, and I’m still damn good.”

“The world’s changed since AOD Mike…” Frank replies gently.

I smirk at him “Heard of ‘Tiki Time?”

“Course I have, anyone who drinks knows the nightmare of trying to get a booking there less than two weeks out.”

“That was on the verge of closing six months ago, and it was called ‘Paddy O’Flannery’s” I reply smugly. “I bought in, and four months and one re-branding later they’re making money hand over fist.”

“So that’s where that money came from… Honestly I thought you won it on the horses.”

“Centaur are too easy to bribe.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

I chuckle at that one, sipping my own drink. “We’re getting off topic. The point is, if it’s worthwhile, I want to help, and God forgive my pride but if I help, they’ll never need it again.”

Frank nodded, seemingly appeased. “Fair enough Mike, I’ll ask around, discretely of course.”

“Cheers mate.”

A discrete knock on the door, and a human girl pokes her head in. “Mr Naylor? Your nephew is outside, says it’s urgent.”

“Thanks Clarissa. Show him in.” Frank replies, beckoning with his cigar hand.

“What happened to the Neko?”

“Ran away with one of my paralegals about four months ago.” Frank chuckled. “From what I hear they’ve been snapped up by this ‘Embassy’ monstrosity the Mamono are running out of Zipangu.”

“That thing’s going to cause waves.” I chuckle

“Like it already isn’t… Ah, Ethan, come in. Drink?” Frank offered, holding up the bottle askance.

“No thanks Uncle Frank.” Ethan replied as he plopped a pile of hardcopy records on the desk. Noticing me, he shook his head. “Smoking, Uncle Mike?” He chided.

“Hey, these are cigars from a troll-tended plantation. I am engaging in cultural exchange, Doctor.” I justify with a cheeky grin.

“Sure sure…” Ethan tsks, before his expression takes on a serious note. “I think I might be in trouble.”

“I can go, if you want…” I began, half-standing from my seat.

Ethan looks at me almost calculatingly. “No… Actually I wouldn’t mind getting your input too Uncle Mike, as long as Uncle Frank makes you sign something appropriately threatening.”

“Consider it signed, we’ll sort out the details in a bit.” Frank waved dismissively. “What’s up?

“Let me show you this first…” Ethan murmurs, tapping at the PC on his wrist. “Could you bring the screen up?”

Frank taps a few buttons nestled neatly in the side of his desk, and a flat screen slides silently out of a subtle recess.

“Opulent.” I snicker.

“Lay off Mike, also confidentiality, blah blah blah…”

“You deleted the disclosure recording? I’m crushed!”

“Guys…” Ethan interrupts impatiently.

“Sorry Ethan.” Frank apologises. “Ready when you are.”

The screen flickers to life, and we are treated to the low-resolution view of some kind of interview room, cold and sterile, a metal chair and table filling the majority of the screen, and seated at it, a man in the pale, austere garments of a hospital patient, garments I myself was all too familiar with.

Ethan hovers his hand over his PC, the paused image of the patient frozen on the screen. “I’ve skipped over his personal information for privacy reasons, I’m sure you understand.”

“Course Ethan, I’d want the same if it were me.” I concede.

Ethan nods, tapping his wrist once, the screen springing to movement and sound.

“..finish identifying these countries for me?” an unidentified voice asked politely

“Geography now? This place just gives you everything!” the patient smirked humorlessly. “Russia, Germany, England, Canada, Japa… FUCK!”

“Let’s be honest with each other here.” The voice continued gently “Even if you managed to get the name right, it’s not like I’d be able to just let you walk out of here.”

“Right. Hah. Ever heard the expression ‘A common opinion does not denote fact?”

“And yet regardless of YOUR opinion to the contrary…” The voice retorted “…we ARE here to help you.”

“You can’t help me, there’s nothing WRONG with me! It’s the world that changed!” The patient insists, planting his hands on the table.

“Why don’t you tell me about that?”

The patient laughed bitterly “Why bother? You won’t believe me anyway.”

“Call it professional curiosity.”

The patient took a deep, shuddering breath. “It was supposed to be a joke, you know? None of us really took it seriously… ‘Make Monster Girls real’ we kept telling ourselves. How could we know something would actually listen?”

The voice gave an involuntary snerk of suppressed laughter. “You’re saying you’re responsible for the emergence?”

“No! Well… Yes… Sort of…” The patient gave a frustrated groan, pressing the heels of his hands to his forehead. “Memes… Thoughtforms… Egregores… Genesis 11:6… Liber Al Lex Legis… it was all there but we didn’t SEE…”

“Who’s we?”

“We called ourselves the Temple of Kek… seems so egotistical now… I don’t know if the eight wanted to fuck with us, or thought it was a good idea, or even just found it funny as hell… but they did it… they did it because we asked them to.”

“Eight?”

“The Ogdoad! Haven’t you been listening? They made it real… and now… now we can see…”

“See what?”

“Everything.”

A pause, soft sound of a stylus on a tablet. “You know, regardless of your improved behaviour, you’re not exactly making a good case here, I hope you realize this.”

“You don’t understand!” the patient pleaded “I HAVE to get out! She’s waiting!”

“We have to make sure that you’re not a danger to others… or to yourself.”

“What, this?” the patient retorted, lifting bandaged arms. I felt a twinge of remembered pain and rubbed my own left arm absently, feeling the thin, almost invisible scars there. “I’m not trying to kill myself, you idiot! I need to stay awake! If I don’t sleep, I can’t dream, and if I can’t dream, I can’t see Her…”

The patient shied away from something unseen “We were for you!” he howled suddenly, his eyes wide with terror “Why are you looking at me like that? We were for you!”

“Get the orderlies in! Get him sedated before he hurts himself again!” The voice barked sharply.

“No! No!” The patient cried as two burly male orderlies held him down, the third sliding a syringe with practiced ease into a vein. “N-not the drugs… Ten thousand years… it was watching but it didn’t see…” The patient’s struggles subsided, and his head lolled forward in a drug-induced stupor.

“Doctor…” the patient drawled, struggling against the sedative “…have you ever looked into the eyes of God?”

“No.” The voice replied simply, the sound of papers being gathered somewhere offscreen.

“I hope… you never do… but… if so… remember… who… you called… crazy…”

His head rolled forward again, drool dripping from parted lips onto his clothes.

“Interview terminated at sixteen twenty sev…”

Ethan shut off the stream, the screen going black.

“We’ve noticed a certain… commonality with the hallucinations experienced by Bender’s patients. Did that mean anything to you, Uncle Mike?”

A distorted flash of memory, draconian eyes, red hair… teeth…

“You opened the door but never walked through…” the words of Melina, the resident Lich in the graveyard where my parents were buried echoed in my mind.

“No.” I lied “Not a thing.”

Ethan sighed. “Shame… Still, it’s academic at this point. The problem is, two days ago I had a visit from someone with an official order to move this patient to another facility, as well as the seizure of all related material.”

Ethan gestured to the top folder in the pile, which Frank picked up and opened, resting his cigar on an ashtray as he did so.

“Seems in order mate… What’s the problem?”

“The problem is, I don’t think the Federal Police have become quite so ecumenical as to start hiring Lilim. I want to know if I’m in any danger of being fucked here.”

“Official Secrets Act, signed order to seize… It really does look like it’s on the up-and-up… well, as far as a level of ‘top secret’ I’ve only ever seen in textbooks can be.” Frank replied, putting the folder down. “What makes you think that you’re being screwed?”

“Scuttlebutt mostly, rumors… I looked up the ‘facility’ he’s being transferred to… Guess where? There’s been talk even since Emergence that the Mamono have got some kind of secret buried in that ‘Embassy’ in Zipangu. It’s why nobody ever comes back from there, and…”

“Of course the disgustingly good pay and top-end facilities don’t enter into it at all.” I smirk.

“Uncle Mike…”

“Sorry Ethan, you’re being an idiot.” I chide. “What would Calliope say if she heard you were buying into Order propaganda about her people?”

“They’re Lilim, Uncle Mike, not Kikimora, there’s a world of diff…”

“So they don’t wax the damn floors daily, they’re still Mamono. It’s been a while since high school physics but I’m pretty sure my daughter is a walking middle finger to at least two fundamental laws. I’ve done everything I can to learn all there is to know about them. Sure there are outliers, but by and large they’ve done nothing but try to live in peace with us every step of the way since emergence. And how do we repay them? We buy into something that makes the Satanic Panic of the late 20th century look like a reasoned argument.”

Ethan sighs, rubbing his face with his hand. “You’re right, of course. Just ever since I got elected onto the Board…”

“WHAT?!” Frank exclaimed, heaving his bulk from the chair and hurrying around the table to embrace his nephew “Congratulations!”

“Ow… Ribs Uncle Frank…” Ethan wheezed, extricating himself from his uncle’s embrace. “I’m so young compared to the rest of them… I couldn’t help but feel I was being set up to be the fall guy for something.”

“Ethan, you’re a brilliant doctor. You’re there because you deserve it.” Frank declared. “And Mike’s right, you’re being silly. Official Secrets act covers your arse from nearly everything. The guy’s head could be found in your freezer and no court in the country could convict you.”

Frank walked back around his desk, pouring another glass of scotch. “Now you’re going to have a drink with us, and Mike’s going to call Sally and the teenage tesla coil, you’re going to call Calliope, and we’re all going out to dinner tonight to celebrate, belated though it may be.”

Ethan opened his mouth to object.

“And…” Frank interrupted, “If you’re still worried about it tomorrow, the signature on this seizure order is that of Bruce McDavidson, DEPN Director. I will call him, set up a meeting, and you can ask him anything you like about the situation.”

“Guess I don’t have a choice in the matter…” Ethan chuckled, accepting the glass.

Frank grinned, picking up his cigar and taking a long drag. “You really don’t. Cheers.”

“Are you sure you read the ticket right?” Sally murmurs to me as she follows me to the front of the theatre, heads turning to regard us with mild interest.

“Yep, Lounge Row A, seats twenty two and twenty three.” I reply, glancing again at the ticket stubs.

Sally’s bovine tail whips nervously within the confines of her elegant dress. “If you’re sure…”

I take her hand, kissing it briefly, before leading her into the front row seating. A small white card is sitting on my seat. Picking it up, I sit down before reading it.

“Deal’s a deal dad, love you.”

“She remembered.” I chuckle, showing the card to Sally. “Front row at her first concert.”

“Oh that’s adorable.” Sally gushes, squeezing my hand where it rests on the plush arm of the seat.

A muted bell gives the wordless signal for stragglers to take their seats. As the murmuring dies down, a tuxedoed MC steps out, microphone in hand.

“Good evening, and Welcome to the Graduation Recital for Rasmussen Academy’s class of 2037” He begins politely, before going over some of the history of the school’s music program, some of his droning speech overlain by still images somewhat pertaining to his rambling monologue.

“But do you think they could get a decent events manager to plan this?” I murmured to Sally.

“Be nice” She whispers back with a small smile.

“So without further ado…” The MC finally winds up

“Thank God.” I mutter under my breath, Sally nudging me in the ribs.

“…our first performer, Miss Kashi Bitterleaf.”

Sparks’s Orcish friend lead out with a bellicose number which sounded reminiscent of some kind of Old English war hymn, her accompanists blasting at their instruments with a look of slight trepidation. Clearly Kashi’s pre-performance pep talk had been in the nature of ‘if you fuck up I’ll kill you.’ Not entirely unexpected, but the performance was solid, and the applause appreciative.

Relieved, her accompanists quit the stage, Kashi taking a final bow. The performances continued at a more sedate pace from there, some students succumbing to the desire to give into ‘artistry’ which lead to not a few pained if indulgent applauses.

“I’ve always said, never mistake a lack of measurable talent for genius…” I whisper after a particularly painful offering. Sally glances at me, grimacing in reluctant agreement.

“Next up… Oh… We have a dual composition.” The MC remarked, slight surprise on his face. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Seraphina Marie Anderson and Steven James O’Connor.”

A few stagehands brought out a steel cage which was placed around the elaborate multi-layered keyboard, and Sparks and Steve walked out to warm applause. I heard Kylie whoop from somewhere in the audience and chuckled. Sparks caught my eye momentarily and gave a slight smile and nervous wave. I pressed my fingers to my lips and ‘threw’ her a kiss. God she looked wonderful tonight, a blue and violet dress which offset her hair flowed around her as she stepped daintily into the cage.

“What’s up with the cage?” I heard someone remark from behind me.

“Not sure… performance art maybe?” another voice answered.

“I didn’t think they were being graded on theatrics…”

I smiled, saying nothing. I knew a faraday cage when I saw one.

The piece began as I remembered it, Sparks’s delicate features intent as she concentrated on the elaborate organ trills. Steve joined in with his comparatively simple guitar riff, feet shuffling as he worked at the effects pedals.

Sparks allowed the music to build further, Steve leaning towards his microphone, his throbbing tenor voice enveloped and lifted as she added layer upon layer. Then, she joined him, her clear voice soaring into the coloratura as it danced with Steve’s.

I held my breath, expecting the ringing climax which I had heard those few weeks prior, but Steve gave the slightest shake of his head, at which Sparks grinned, returning to the beginning of the refrain, adding further build. She closed her eyes, throwing her head back, eyes glowing, before a series of ringing thunderbolts tore through the air.

A collective gasp rippled through the audience, and she repeated the action, Steve grinning like a madman as he headed back into the bridge. As the bolts rang out again, I realized that they weren’t just random noise… Sparks’s lightning was in time and in tune with her own frenzied playing! They built into the climax, Sparks’s hands flying over the keys and beads of sweat standing out on Steve’s brow. Black spots started swimming in my vision, and I realized I was still holding my breath. I let it out explosively as the music started winding down. As the notes of the final refrain lingered in the air I leapt to my feet, cheering and clapping with reckless abandon. Sally joined me, and I saw others join us in the standing ovation. Sparks stepped from the faraday cage, her blue hair wild and her eyes alight. She took Steve’s hand and they both bowed, before leaving the stage.

“Her old school is probably kicking themselves that they let her go.” I remarked to Sally as the applause died down.

“I really hope nobody recorded that and sent it to them.”

“You didn’t!” I laughed.

Sally looked at me, an expression of feigned innocence on her soft features. “Would I do that love? Little old me?”

 “I love you.” I murmured sincerely, leaning over and kissing her warmly.

“Can you believe it?” Kylie remarked to me where she and Charles had joined us in the foyer.

“Weren’t they spectacular?” Sally agreed.

I nodded, taking a drink, still unable to wipe the grin off my face.

“Mister Anderson?” a voice from behind me. I turned to see a grey haired man looking at me intently.

“That’s me, what can I do for ya mate?”

“Forgive the interruption. My name is Klaus Bottzler, I work in admissions at the Vienna Conservatorium, and I would very much like to make a proposal to your ward and her colleague.” The man said, offering me a business card.

Kylie gasped, and I will admit to being taken aback a little myself.

“Hang on here mate… I’ll see if I can’t convince them to make an appearance.” I said hurredly, limping towards the stage door.

“I’m sorry sir, no public access at this time.” A staff member stated politely, holding a hand out. I paused for a second, torn between pleading, bribing the guy or letting my ego have full play and going all ‘Don’t you know who I am?!’ on the poor sap.

“Monesuir le Phantom…” A smooth, rich voice sounded from behind me. I turned around, to see an elegantly garbed Hakutaku standing behind me, small bells hanging from her broad horns.

“Miss Summers.” I smiled, recognising Sparks’s literature teacher.

“It’s alright, he’s with me.” The Hakutaku remarked to the staff member blocking the door, flashing a card before taking my arm and leading me through.

“Ooh, we’re all alone back here.” She remarked, clinging to my arm suggestively.

I laughed, patting her hand. “I’m spoken for.”

“I know, Sally is a lovely girl.” She sighed, “A pity.”

“If it’s the Phantom you’re after I’d be a shit choice anyway, Miss Summers. I’m not nearly brooding enough.”

“Oh so you ARE familiar with the work?”

I laugh, “Only what Andrew Lloyd Webber did with it, I fear.”

“Oh my dear, you are missing out!” the Hakutaku exclaimed.

“Michael?” I heard a voice from the dimness ahead of me. I paused, peering as the figure came nearer.

“Richard?” I asked uncertainly, squinting to try and discern the figure approaching with a broad grin on his bearded face.

“The one and only! Where the hell have you been? You don’t write, you don’t call…”

“A lot’s happened mate.” I explain, catching the man in a rough hug. “What about you, still mangling Shakespere?”

“Nah, my performing days are behind me, I fear.” Richard replied, shaking his head. “I’m on the selection committee for the theatre these days.”

“Nice work mate, although I’d fire whoever you put in as MC tonight.”

Richard made a face. “Not my call, that’s the principal’s little brother, if reports are to be believed.”

“Ah nepotism…” I chuckled.

Richard turned to Miss Summers, looking at the Hakutaku appreciatively. “And who is this vision?”

“Richard, Miss Summers, my daughter’s teacher.”

Richard took the Hakutaku’s hand, raising it to his lips. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.”

“…Keats?” Miss Summers murmured with an indrawing of breath.

“The same, dear lady.”

“My oh my oh my…” Miss Summers near moaned, her digitigrade legs trembling.

“I’ll er, leave you both to it.” I murmured, extricating myself from them.

“Sure mate, we’ll talk soon.” Richard flashed his winning grin at me.

“Uh huh…” Miss Summers waved absently.

Chuckling, I headed down the hallway, spotting a female figure who was pinning a wild-eyed young man to the wall between muscular forearms.

“Hey Kashi, do you know where Sparks is?”

The Orc’s head turned, and she grinned at me tuskily.

“Hullo Mr Anderson, yeah, third door on the right.”

“Thanks kid, be gentle yeah?” I remarked, the young man she had accosted staring at me with a pleading expression.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Kashi remarked.

I chuckled, turning and heading in the direction the young Orc girl had indicated. She wouldn’t do anything to him he didn’t REALLY want her to anyway… I hoped.

“Sparks? You the…” I began, freezing as I opened the door to see Sparks and Steve kissing passionately in the dressing room, her legs and arms wrapped around him, one hand on her breast, the other holding her slight frame to him.

“Oh shit.” Sparks moaned as she spotted me, her eyes wide with horror.

“What’s the matte… Oh SHIT!” Steve echoed as he turned his head and saw me standing there, jaw agape, hand still frozen on the door.

“This isn’t what… OK so it might be what it looks like…” Sparks babbled frantically, extricating herself from Steve’s embrace and straightening her clothes frantically. “Just please don’t freak out dad?”

“Someone… outside… important… wants to meet you two.” I heard myself say, before turning around and walking away, my mind refusing to process what I had just seen. If I passed Richard and Miss Summers on the way back out, I didn’t notice.

“Michael? Is everything alright?” Sally asked me concernedly as I drank deeply of the scotch I had ordered over the bar.

“Alright?” I echoed, before bursting into helpless laughter. “I don’t know… I really, honestly don’t…”

“Dad?” Sparks asked timidly as she approached from the stage door, her hand unconsciously still entwined with Steve’s.

“Oh…” Sally chuckled, seeing them together. “Oh dear me…”

“So five years after taking full control, you have no regrets about surrendering control of the Shelter to the Mamono Embassy?” The reporter asked, her eyes flicking between Kylie and Myself.

“The Mamono clearly have a much better understanding of what their people require than I do.” Kylie offered diplomatically. “I’m just glad that such an arrangement can be made for the mutual benefit of both our species.”

“What about yourself, Mr Anderson? People are suggesting that this could be your first failed business venture.”

“Hah” I chuckled. “They COULD, if I ever treated the Shelter like a business venture.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well both Mrs O’Connor and I were motivated by one driving factor. We wanted to help. Wanted to show the Mamono that The Order and their hatred was not the inevitable reaction of humanity. That we could care, and could assist them, just as they have assisted us, both in our own ways.”

“We might have to cut that bit about the Order…” The reporter mused. “They tend to get loud.”

“Fuck ‘em.” I smirked. “Listen, Patricia, we’re going to have to reschedule the rest of this. My daughter’s getting married tomorrow and I’ve got a million things to do.”

“How did you ever end up earning so much when you leave so much to the last minute, Michael?” Kylie chided.

“I’m retired, I can afford to be slack.”

Kylie chuckled. “Oh sure, I heard THAT six years ago.”

“What can I say, old habits. Did Steve pull up alright from the bucks?”

“From what I understand, Charlie’s being awfully tight lipped about it.”

“Course he is! It’s not like you’re telling me anything about Sparks’s hens.”

“Just as long as he behaved himself.”

I fixed Kylie with a level stare. “Kyles, he’s marrying my daughter, do you think I’d let him act up?”

Kylie chuckled “It still seems so unreal.”

I laugh, hugging my ex-wife affectionately before heading towards my car. “I find not thinking about it in too much detail helps.”

“My love to Sally.” She offered sincerely.

“Thanks, say hi to the lads for me.”

“Will do. See you tomorrow.”

Yeah, Tomorrow… Suddenly the promise of tomorrow seemed that little bit brighter. My phone buzzed on my wrist.

“Hello Thunderbug.” I answered affectionately.

“Daddy, it’s a disaster! Nothing’s going right and I can’t get ahold of Sharon and the kettle’s broken and I can’t find my shoes and…”

“Shhh. Calm down my little spark of inspiration, I’ll be right over and we’ll sort this out.”

“Thanks Dad.” Sparks sniffed into the phone. “I love you.”

“Love you too kid…” I chuckled “…Love you too.”

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10 thoughts on “A Spark of Inspiration”

  1. Beautiful! I haven’t read any of your other stories yet, but I should start!

    The Swear Jar idea was hilarious, as well as Sally breaking the reporter’s camera and helping Michael escape that devious Lilim’s seduction charms.

  2. If Mike saw the truck in his mirrors, how did he get T-boned by it? Maybe he got sideswiped, but unless it was off a cliff I don’t see how a sideswipe puts you in a coma for 15 years.

    Why did Mike lie about not understanding what the crazy person was on about? To keep people from thinking he’s still crazy?

    1. >Accident details

      It made sense in my head… one of those intersections where you have to kind of hang your ass out on a right hand turn because there’s no arrow. You’re right though, it is a bit confusing now I look at it again.

      >lying about seeing things

      Essentially yeah. Mike kind of has a gut feeling that maybe the benders patient isn’t as crazy as everyone seems to think he is.

  3. Sparks is best weasel daughteru for lyfe. Thoroughly enjoyed that mate, nicely written, although your allusions to the Embassy being more sinister or at least more clandestine than people seem to know has me intrigued. I look forward to your coming work. ‘s good shit.

  4. The way this adds up more lore to your setting is amazing, one can truly work out a rough timeline of everything.
    P.S. are you telling me that the starting point for everything was a bunch of guys putting so much hope in their desires that they changed reality? Truly a matter of mind over matter if that’s the case…

    1. Well it was exactly the right people in exactly the right place at exactly the right time when exactly the right extrauniversal entities were paying exactly enough attention… but yeah, pretty much. I pulled a fair bit of influence from gnostic and esoteric theosophies when developing the ‘Gods’.

  5. That’s the problem with pursuing Pistis Sophia, she can be capricious in her bestowal of favors. Be careful what you wish for- you may get it.

    All in all a rather delightful story. I had to keep coming back to it as during the day things kept getting in the way. I’m glad I persisted.
    The elephant in the room: If the world was changed once, what’s to prevent it from happening again?

  6. A thoroughly enjoyable read. After reading the comments, I have a couple suggestions, late as I am to the party, and some closing remarks.

    > Sideswipe coma
    Depending on the angle of impact, speed, and numerous other factors, getting thrown for a 15 year loop really isn’t that much of a stretch. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

    > Bender’s
    This has so much potential, it’s not even funny. You could literally write an X-Files series wholly focused on THAT, with the Zipangu embassy centered as a metaphorical Area 51. I’ve read your Noire story, so I know you can do it.

    > The rest of the story
    Blown away, truly. Shock suggested I read this. Agreeing with comments above, Sparks totally stole the show. No contest. I feel like I now have gained the perspective of growing up with a raiju sister and raising a raiju daughter at the same time. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

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