She’d been right in the end. It was three days since the fight, and I felt like absolute hell. About the only one of us that was doing well was Sarah. With Roger riding in the back of the wagon along with our two prisoners, myself and Manuel were taking turns riding shotgun. Karen and Roy, bless their souls, had been knocked out by the blast the fire chick had set off. Apparently, it had sucked the air out of their lungs. But the good news was that except for some scrapes and bruises they were otherwise unhurt, meaning that they, along with Sis, were spending all of this trip walking.
The trip back was usually a good time for all of us. Nobody really had to walk. But with the two would-be bandits in the wagon, tied down nice and good, and Roger sprawled out the way he was, it meant more walking for everybody. Amy kept offering to walk and let someone else drive the horses, but we all politely declined. Karen looked the least happy about that, but she was giving way to the rest of us and following our professionalism on the subject. It was good for her. Let her learn a lesson about how real mercenaries acted on contract. Roy whined like the lazy sod he was, but there were reasons why we got paid better than him.
Not that I felt too professional at the moment. Each time that I got on the wagon, I felt that much more like an amateur.
Roger would be okay. He had a concussion, or so I was told, but it made sitting up difficult at best. Even the jostling of of the wagon was enough to make him queasy now. We still weren’t uncovering that eye, though — the way the crystal had cut him, even though the eye wasn’t hurt, it would be harder to bandage without covering his eye. Nobody was saying it, but we all knew that we didn’t want someone with a concussion and no depth perception driving the wagon, anyway.
We’d made a push to have the two prisoners come back with us to New Brockton. For the most part, the Sons had agreed; only two needed convincing, and they had good reason. Bitch would be furious about the attack and would demand blood. She wasn’t as young as she used to be, but if anything that had just served to make her that much more fearsome about protecting her own. If you knew what was good for you, you didn’t mess with her people. It was a pity that so many didn’t have that much basic common sense. I wasn’t sure how the dissenters were convinced to let us take them, but I was happy that we did.
Sarah and I had quietly mulled over what the most likely punishment would be. Bitch probably would have beat on them and then removed a hand if she was feeling generous. Some rumors stated that she even branded one person who barely escaped getting killed, but that was just rumor talk that I didn’t put much faith in. In New Brockton? Most likely, they’d do some forced labor for a year or two, then be shipped off to one of the parahuman detention centers. Which one depended on how dangerous the courts felt they were.
“So you two never did tell us why you did it,” Manuel said, looking back at them with anger in his eyes.
I stole a glance to Sarah, who shared my dark look. Poor move. You didn’t talk to prisoners whenever possible. You tried not to think of them as people. You treated them humanely, sure. Our people hadn’t been the ones to rough them up. But you still kept yourself from empathizing with them until after you turned them in. Talking to them… That increased the chances that you might feel guilty about capturing them.
“We needed the gasoline,” muttered John, his voice as low as his head hung.
“Shut up!” barked the fire girl. We’d been able to worm out of them that her name was Beth. Well, more accurately, apparently John had asked about her when his brains quit being quite so scrambled.
Her words got a reaction out of John, his head snapping up. Anger burned in his eyes, and I instinctively took a step closer so that I could snag him if he lunged for her. They might hurt Roger.
“Oh, no. You got me into this mess, and I-”
“We wouldn’t be in this mess if you’d just gone with him!”
“And why didn’t you?!”
Beth recoiled as if he’d just slapped her in the face. John took her momentary silence and ran with it, turning to Manuel. “Her power needs an accelerant. Something that will burn well. Solids don’t work unless they’re practically powdered, so we need liquid. For what she did? It took a gallon of kerosene. Gas works better; not only does it make her powers last longer, but she’s more powerful with them. And the more she puts into the fire, the more powerful she is.”
Manuel scoffed softly. “And why the hell would you need that much firepower?”
That shut all of us up instantly. Sarah, Roy, and Roger all looked the most uncomfortable, but it was enough to give Manuel visible pause. This is why we didn’t talk to captives — nobody here could really blame them for doing something that crazy and stupid.
“Manuel,” Amy hissed, her voice low and dangerous. “Off the fucking wagon. It’s Jordan’s turn to ride.”
“Off!” Both Amy and Roger snapped in unison. Amy and Roger worked well together. When one was harsh, the other would be gentle. When they both got harsh… Well, people ran. Unlike Roger, Amy slipped her arm from her sling, making a fist. I still wasn’t completely sure what their relationship was. Sarah believed that Amy and Roger were siblings or lovers. I somehow doubted they were siblings, which left lovers. I wasn’t sure, though. It wasn’t uncommon for a man and a woman to just be close friends, forming tight enough bonds that they might as well be family. Still, with some of the affection that they showed each other, the way that they doted on the other…
Manuel hopped off before the wagon even came to a complete stop. I spared a glance at John and Beth, gauging them. Both heads were down, neither looking at anything. Yeah, if Fyrtorn was involved, no matter how, then they probably had a lot of inner demons to wrestle with at the moment. Even if I felt like talking with them, now wasn’t exactly the time. Besides, it wasn’t my problem. And I’d have to keep telling myself that until we got to town.
I climbed up next to Amy. After a moment’s hesitation, I scooted across the wood bench until I was next to her. She’d been on edge since the attack, and it wasn’t just the attack itself. Roger had been hurt, her reputation was on the line, and… Well, there was more, I could tell. What it might be was beyond me, but sometimes you don’t need the specifics. Her face was hard as she snapped the reins, getting the horses moving at a dull pace again. Poor woman.
I wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders and let the words flow. I wasn’t a good singer — I’d tried to learn when I was a kid, and while I could hit the notes at the right times, my teachers told me that my voice wasn’t right. I desperately had wanted to be the one who sang the solos, but they’d patiently explained time and time again that I wouldn’t be that person, that the I’d always be a member of the chorus.
Just one of life’s many, many disappointments.
But while I might not ever be a lead singer or a member of a quartet or anything, I did still love to sing. Most of my songs were wordless, just sounds that sounded like the might possibly be words strung together to form a melody. Something to occupy my mind. I’d started singing songs like this to help with my training, to control my breathing and pace, to keep track of how far I’d come and how far I still had to go. Some people thought it was strange, and sometimes I got asked to stop, but nobody told me that it was bad.
Amy relaxed a little bit, accepting the comfort as she got it. Everybody needed comfort on occasion. A moment of weakness, offer them some strength, and they’d usually be able to dive back into whatever they needed to do. For now, that’s all that I could offer anybody.
I fought back a yawn, but to no avail. Tears ran out of my eyes, and my nose began running. Dang it. I blinked rapidly to clear my eyes, still wanting to finish this chapter before nightfall. It didn’t matter that this was the third time that I’d read the book on this trip. I could read by firelight, but I preferred to stay sharp. My ability to quietly guard a camp overnight was a highlight of my reputation. With how jacked this entire trip had been, I wanted to at least keep some of my dignity intact.
Unfortunately, my body just wasn’t waking up. My brain didn’t want to engage fully, my arms still felt heavy, and worse, I could feel another yawn slowly forming inside of me. I wasn’t going to get my chance.
With a frown, I slid my bookmark into place and put the book in my pack. Dinner was just getting started, but that didn’t mean much to me yet. Roy had announced when we put down stakes for the night that he’d do some hunting. He’d left before I’d fallen asleep, and I distinctly remembered Sis and Karen going in the opposite direction. I’d been asleep when they’d all returned, but it didn’t take a genius to determine who had caught tonight’s meal. Roy’s heart was in the right place, but he was loud, impatient, and… Well, pretty much exactly the wrong type of person to hunt. He was good in a fight, but I wouldn’t want to share a room with him. His snoring could wake the dead.
I shouldn’t be so hard on him, I chastised myself silently. He wasn’t a bad guy. Thoughtless at times, and self-centered, and only tended to do the bare minimum, but not bad. He was good in a fight, and he liked to share his passions. There were a lot worse things in life. I couldn’t afford to get on the case of someone I had depended to watch my back for some bad personal habits. People probably kept a running tally of my own, ready to slap me in the face with them if I pissed them off, and mine were probably worse. Heck, compared to me, he was probably a saint. And anyway, I shouldn’t think bad thoughts about someone else; I didn’t want people thinking bad thoughts about me, after all.
I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and fixed the smile to my face again. I took up my halberd and forced myself upright. Making my way away from the others, trying my best to ignore the protest of my legs. I didn’t want to give them a reason to dislike me.
There were all sorts of ways to wake up. Some people drank tea. While tea was fine, I considered it something to have with meals or on actual breaks, not something to kickstart my brain. No, I preferred my go juice to be something a little more natural.
I took up a stance and began a low chant. Opening with the main chorus of the chant, mostly to get myself on a pace. I shifted it to a bridge as I began to swing the halberd. One straight down, stopping at the waist, reset, then swing again at an angle. Four swings, then back to the chorus. Slash straight from the left, repeat all the way down, like spokes on a wheel. One swipe up, repeat. One slash from the right, repeat. With that, the pie of angles of attack was finished. Repeat clockwise this time. Repeat both cycles again, then switch the position of my hands on the halberd and repeat it all again from scratch.
After that came a circular parry-to-counterattack routine, both clockwise and counterclockwise, then switching between the various grips, then quick ducks-to-counterattacks. Normally, I would have practiced throwing it and retrieving it as quickly as I could, but my legs weren’t in it. Which also ruled out the feint-to-kicks. But that was okay; since I’d hurt my knee I wasn’t too fond of kicks to start with. That didn’t mean that I didn’t practice them whenever I felt up to it.
As I went through my daily routine, focusing on a fusion between speed and control, people mostly let me go do my own thing. Roy, despite his faults, would only nod appreciatively as he watched me like a hawk. That was another point in his favor; he understood that it was only through practice and use that a person improved their skills. Training every day, or as often as one could get away with, helped keep your skills sharp. Neither one of us got to shoot as often as we would have liked, but his bullets were more expensive than mine anyway. He was an assault rifle and short sword kind of guy. His rounds were overkill in my opinion.
Actually, the way that he watched me was kind of creepy, with his head tilted forward and a strange blank expression, but I tried not to think about that too much.
Twenty minutes after I started, my mind and body were finally working in concert. The hammering of my heart and the movement of my body was enough to flush the sleep from my system. I’d work on my book more tomorrow.
Amy and Roger were leaned up against each other, away from the fire and everyone else. They looked like they were having a heated discussion, but were keeping it as quiet as possible. Karen was tending to the meat, Roy was alternating between looking at me and eying the meat lustfully. John and Beth were in the cart, trying not to look like they were testing how we’d tied them up. Sure, they could move their hands enough to eat and drink, but neither could get at their own knots that bound them to the cart, nor the other’s.
Manuel was sitting by the fire, fighting to stay awake by how his head nodded, and Sarah was sitting with a few jugs from the carts and people’s canteens.
I hurried to get my pack before settling down next to her. “Sorry, Sis.”
“S’okay, I don’t mind. Better than hearing you yawn every two minutes.”
I fished my own water filter and battery out, grabbing one of the canteens and a water jug. Another Chris special: connect the power supply for the low voltage it needed (we tested it and confirmed — potatoes provided enough current) and it would only allow water to pass through. He had a lot of materials like that around his lab. Usually, the only way that he could get enough chemicals to make his stuff was to extract it from other things.
Sarah said that us bringing stuff like that wasn’t enough to negotiate for more on a contract, but it was enough to endear us to the people working jobs like this. It made us valuable, which meant the better chance of us getting a bonus or getting rehired. I just thought it made us helpful, and kept us from having to drag as much water along with us. Being able to safely refill on potable water from any stream, no matter how bad it was, made our lives just that much easier.
The both of us were willing to work in silence, just pouring away. Often, by the time that a canteen was half full, we’d have to pause to clear away whatever film formed on it. After the canteens came the water jugs that we did bring — not every day brought us close to a stream, and a single canteen wouldn’t even last us a full day anyway. Sis and I made sure to refill whenever possible. It was better to be safe than sorry.
“Oh, come on,” Roy whined, causing both of us to look up from our work. He was staring down at his meal as if he’d just been insulted. “This is it?!”
“Everybody gets the same amount,” Karen said flatly. “If you’d done a better job at scrounging up some meat, then we’d all get more.”
“Maybe if you and Sarah weren’t such-”
A low growl escaped my throat as I leveled my gaze at him. He took the smart road and shut the hell up. There were a lot of things that I tolerated. Heck, I liked to think of myself as a fairly laid back guy when it came to other people. There were a lot of people who would be missing eyes and hands otherwise. But talking bad about my siblings when they didn’t deserve it? That was a quick road to getting a punch in the face or twenty. And he knew it; he remembered what I’d done to that guy who’d learned it the hard way last year. Expanding his belly even more than it already was probably wasn’t worth taking me on.
My eyes slid off of him and my face slid into an easy smile as Karen approached with two plates. A large collection of blackberries, a few greens, a small potato, and a few healthy slices of squirrel adorned them. “Which one of you got the berries?” I asked cheerfully, my growl already forgotten.
“I did,” Sarah said with a grin. “Karen got the kill.”
“Thank you for that,” I said, bowing my head to my sister. Then, as I took the plate from Karen, “And thank you for the meat tonight. I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”
A lopsided grin crossed Karen’s face as she cocked a hip out. “Why Jordan, are you flirting with me?”
My smile dropped from my face like a stone, and Sarah nearly fell over with laughter. “N-no, it’s not that! I just, I was just…”
“Relax,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I’m just teasing you.” She looked to Sarah. “You were right! He is cute when he blushes!”
Was I blushing? Oh, crap, I was. I glared at my sister, who meeped and dug in quickly. “Yeah, that’s right, eat fast before I mash it in your face.”
“‘ove yoo too, bro,” she said around a mouthful of berries.
I looked around and everyone but Roy was grinning. Even our captives looked a little amused by it. I flashed them a slight grin to let everyone know I wasn’t actually angry before I drew my knife from my chest to cut my potato. It wasn’t real anger, anyway. Nothing that lasted, at least; any irritation that I’d felt was already disappearing inside me. Even the embarrassment was fading fast.
This was good, though. Since the fight, everybody had either been on edge or had just been down. Betrayal had been a part of it; though Roger owned the cart and had the contract on the deliveries, part of his contract dictated that his employer hire and pay for us mercs. With the internet not reaching most places that had power or computers, background checks were far from perfect. But they’d never lead us wrong before. Even Roy was useful in a fight, with his limited gravity control (or rather impressive telekinesis, I wasn’t sure), his ability to levitate opponents for as long as he concentrated on them. This time…
We ate in a more relaxed silence now. I wouldn’t have minded more conversation, but we’d learned a long time ago that private conversations were best. Some people, well, one person in particular turned it to the ugly kind of politics that ended in people being angry for the rest of the trip. Most of us had different tastes; nobody was quite the voracious reader that I was, Karen was the only one into crocheting, Roger usually had this strange expression on his face when we talked about stuff, Amy was too quiet for the most part, and Sarah… When she was in the right mood, we’d all sit around the campfire too late, listening to her tell stories. She didn’t do it often, but when she did it made the hours fly by. I didn’t know where she got those ideas, but I wished that I could tap into them.
Before dinner was done, though, Roger set his plate to the side and rose carefully to his feet. “Alright everyone.” That got our attention. I lowered my plate on my lap, already feeling a deep sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. “We were originally going to say this earlier, after the handoff, but then didn’t seem like a good time. And then…” Roger sighed softly, running a hand over his beard. I’d never seen it look even slightly out of place, just enough to have a good shape to it, not long enough for food to get caught in it. I’d seen him trimming it some mornings. Not so much since he’d been hurt, though.
He looked us all over for a moment, steeling himself. “That was our last delivery.”
“What?” Roy almost shouted.
Roger held up his hand, closing the eye that we could see. It took a moment for Roy to settle down, and it was only after he did that Roger continued. “The oil well that they’ve been using has run dry. With no crude, the plant can’t make gasoline. Without gasoline, there isn’t the pressure to make deliveries to the Sons of Bitch.”
“Well, why the hell don’t they just find another oil rig?!” How Roy was able to push so many of my buttons today was a mystery that I hoped I’d never solve, but his question made me want to seethe.
“Because it’s been twenty years. The oil rigs that we were using took a lot of resources to keep going. The ones that we weren’t using suffered corrosion due to the salt water. Europe and Asia might still have oil, but right now getting people to share is a chore at best. Land-based oil wells were destroyed, especially when Scion moved through Texas. They’re still a possibility, but it’s going to take time to clear the rubble and rebuild. And as much as using the untapped wells in Gimmel or one of the other Earths, it’s still going to take years to move everything there and get wells running. We don’t have the roads or any other part of the infrastructure necessary to build new wells right on hand.”
That was the true damage that Scion had done to humanity. He’d struck our main production centers, our centers of government, and denied us the tools that would have been the most helpful in rebuilding. Most of society had been built up over centuries, with each step leading the way to the next. By stripping away many of those steps, we’d lost the ability to make the things that humanity had taken for granted.
“Trust me, I’ve asked all the questions, and all but begged them to find a way. They want to keep this route going, they really do, but until they can find a way to create a reliable supply line of gas, it just isn’t worth it.”
He looked over all of us, silent for a moment before drawing in a breath. “I plan on getting another contract ASAP. I’ve been running this route for a long time, since the shortage of ’29, and I don’t plan on retiring any time soon. As soon as I have a new route set up, I’ll still be in need of hands. All of you will be welcome. And should you need a recommendation, we’ll gladly offer any of you one.
“We didn’t want this to be impersonal, delivered by your agent. We didn’t want this to come as a surprise, you arriving for the next shipment and finding out that there wasn’t one. I’m sorry about this, I really am.”
My eyes were on my plate by this point, but I wasn’t really seeing it. I wished that I could have been thinking some great plan to keep the line running, but… I wasn’t really thinking of anything at all.
I heard Karen’s voice say “Thank you,” and brought my eyes back up. Karen was hugging Roger tight. She hadn’t been with us long, this was only her fourth trip, and I got the feeling this line was her first real contract. My eyes softened as I looked at them. Her fourth escort, she gets knocked out and almost loses the entire wagon, and then finds out that it’s her last one? That had to hurt. Sure, I had regrets over the contract ending, but at least I was ending on a high note.
Sarah and I made our way to our feet as Karen disengaged, but Manuel was already making his way over, gripping Roger’s hand. It took a moment, but Roger pulled him into a hug. I smiled a little at that. Manuel had lost his father to pneumonia right before he’d signed on, and Roger had filled a hole in his life. A parental figure. Yeah, no matter what happened, they’d find a way to bring him back in.
I noted that Roy wasn’t getting up, just staring at his long-empty plate, his lips moving silently. Probably complaining to himself that he’d have to find a new contract. It was good for him, though. He needed the practice in dealing with people.
Finally, the two parted their hug, Manuel had tears in his eyes that he was trying to blink back. We stayed back to give them an air of privacy. I caught the word fishing and ducked my head a little bit. Roger had taught Manuel how to do that. In some areas, so long as it wasn’t winter, all that you really needed to survive was a knife and a fishing pole. Valuable skills passed down, and when they had the chance, the two had always gone together. As Manuel took a step back, we moved a little closer. “I’d like that,” I overheard Manuel say. He was about our age, probably a little younger. Age was a funny thing these days; old enough to work and be expected to fully pull your weight, too young to be taken seriously. Folks expected kids to act like an adult in their teens, but didn’t expect them to be the slightest bit mature until they were halfway through their twenties. I couldn’t understand it. I doubted I ever would.
When he finally moved away, we stepped forward. Sarah was the one to put her hand forward first. “Mr. Hale, I’d just like to say that it’s been an honor and a pleasure to work for you. You and Amy have been good to us, and no matter what the future holds for either of us, I hope that we can meet again. The more often the-”
He cut her off by pulling her in for a hug. “Knock it off, dipshit.” His voice was as warm as his smile. He pulled back a little, beaming at the two of us. “You two… Two years ago, you were the ones I was the most worried about when I saw you. You were kids, already with experience under your belts. Acting like you’d done this so many times that it became routine.”
He reached out his hand, and I ducked under it, letting him get me around the shoulders to pull me in. “You’ve stuck around when everybody else would just take a trip or two and decide it was too much walking. For all the years I’ve been doing this one, you two were the reliable ones. You, the serious one who would let her walls down when I least expected it, and you,” he looked at me, “always wearing your heart on your sleeve, always going the extra mile.”
“I’m gonna miss you too,” I said, blushing a bit again.
“Don’t miss me too much,” he said, looking between us. “We won’t be apart that long. I want you two back, and I’ll do whatever negotiation it takes to get us there. Until you two get the cash you need, I’ll always have need of you, understand?”
“Thanks, Roger,” Sarah said, blushing a little.
Despite my easy smile, my eyes flicked to John and Beth. Judging by how they were looking, if guilt were a commodity, we’d have to keep the two of them in a vault.
The fire had burned down to embers, leaving me with only the occasional pop, the loud sawing of Roy’s snoring, and the sounds of crickets. On the moments when Roy wasn’t keeping the wildlings away in his sleep, I could barely hear the bubbling of the stream where we’d gotten our water.
I didn’t mind the night shift. I’d hated sleep ever since I was a kid. I’d woken up one day with no memories of anything that had happened before, no idea where I was or the people around me, and no idea on how to interact with any of them. It had taken months before I’d gotten up the nerve to even talk to anyone. Sleep was something to be feared. A child’s logic dictated that if you went to sleep one day and woken up the next with no memories, then it could happen again, and I didn’t want to lose anything.
So I didn’t sleep much, even though I knew I’d come to love my dreams. Even if I could only remember them for a few moments after I’d woken up. As I grew up, I slept less and less, relying instead on cat naps throughout the day.
But that had left me with another problem. What to do at night? Nowadays, whenever I got the chance I’d read some heady book during the day, then spend those quiet nighttime hours processing it, trying to figure out the bits that I didn’t get. Sometimes, I’d have to spend days thinking about it while everybody else slept. Here, it was handy though. I could get paid for thinking, or for going through my katas, or just goofing off without having to worry about anybody else seeing me.
“Shirt off,” a voice whispered in my ear. Well, almost anybody.
I went through the process of separating my shirt from my pants and undoing it. I didn’t bother turning around from the log I was sitting on. I just waited for the hands on my shoulders, working on the knots.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before,” Amy whispered.
“S’allright. Sarah and I kind of figured something was up. That was one of the possibilities.” I took in a breath as she hit a spot that was a little tender.
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She sighed a little, her breath on the back of my neck. “Do you think we’ll get to hire you again?”
I let out a sigh myself, my eyes still scanning the treeline that I could make out. “I dunno. That depends on Sis, I guess, and how soon she can get us another contract. I still need plenty of funds.”
“Well, I hope she takes her sweet ass time.” I chuckled a little, though my lips didn’t curl. “You know, I had a crush on you.”
I turned my head, blinking at her shape in the darkness. “Seriously?” Now it was her time to chuckle quietly.
“Yeah. Roger would poke me in the side every time he caught me staring at you.”
“I…” My brain took a moment to process that. “Wait, what? I… Roger?”
She seemed only that much more amused. “What? Did you think we were…? Ew!” She snickered again. “He’s my dad, silly. Back in the day, he bought his Thinker powers from Cauldron. Not that being able to know exactly where you are and how to get where you’re going was worth much back then. But ever since, he’s aged real slow. He should outlive me and my sister.”
My mind worked and made extra bounds of logic. “Does that affect his healing?”
She was silent for a moment. “Yeah,” she said softly. “He’ll probably be wearing bandages for at least a year, and it might be two before he’s fully healed up.”
I lowered my head a little. “I’m sorry.”
Her palm connected with the back of my head. “Quit apologizing for things that aren’t your fault.”
She smacked me again, but I knew she was grinning. I totally deserved that one.
“So, uh… If you don’t mind me asking… Uh…”
“Smooth, Jor.” Amy chuckled a little as she got back to work. “You were nice, friendly, downright charming at times. Smart. You treated me with as much respect as Roger. Never let anyone tell you that the damn smile of yours isn’t cute, either. Mopey dudes who only frown all the time don’t do a thing for me. And unlike most of the people who ride with us, you and your sister never once treated it like a cakewalk. Plus, you look kind of exotic.”
Mysteriously semi-dark skin means exotic. Good to know. Unlike Sis, I was just dark enough for me to pass as not being entirely Caucasian, but pale enough that I could just be naturally darker-skinned. I’d cursed it when I was younger, never really knowing where I belonged. Apparently, though, it was handy for something after all.
“Then there was that first night with the cramps.”
“I… don’t think I remember the first time.” I hated not remembering things that were important to other people. I always felt like a heel over it. If it was important enough for them to remember, then the least that I could do was remember myself. She chuckled a little.
“I think it was your second time with us? Back when we were doing runs way more often. Anyway, I woke up in the middle of the night whimpering. You asked what was wrong, I said ‘girl problems,’ and you just said ‘ah.’ So you got put your canteen in the coals for a little bit, wrapped it in a towel and gave it to me. You held my hand until I fell asleep, and didn’t say a thing.”
That sounded like me, actually. Funny, these days if she was having trouble sleeping due to cramps, she’d just ask me if I could help. A hot canteen, some physical comfort, and eventually she was able to relax enough to sleep. Or if she just couldn’t sleep, she’d give me a backrub to help wear herself out, I’d give her one to help her wind down enough to pass out. We’d waste a few hours talking, and then back to bed with her.
“At first, I didn’t want to say anything to you because… Well, crush and all. And then when I got more comfortable, I didn’t want to say anything because you’re technically an employee, you know?”
“Then… I dunno when it happened, but one day I realized that I just considered you a friend. I just… didn’t feel the crush anymore.” I couldn’t help but chuckle softly, despite that stinging a little.
“Nuts. My inherent likability ruins my chance for a date yet again.”
“Been a while?” she asked, a curious tone to her voice.
“I think my last date was, what? Six years ago? And we both agreed that we were better off as friends.” At the time, I’d accepted it, I’d agreed whole-heartedly, but it didn’t mean that I hadn’t cried that night. “I think every time there’s been someone attracted to me and I wanted so have someone in my life like that, they’d end up feeling too much like friends to be able to do that.”
She paused in her work on my back. “Jesus. Now I feel like I almost owe you something as an apology, or something.”
I reached down and grabbed my shirt. “And that’s where we switch.” I kept my tone light and friendly, despite the twinge that gave me inside.
“I didn’t mean-”
“Relax.” I stood and guided her onto the log. “I was gonna suggest a switch anyway. If you kept going, I was gonna start getting sleepy.”
Once she was settled and comfortable, I got to work on her shoulders. “Besides, you’re still kinda-sorta my employer. Or at least, a supervisor or something. It wouldn’t feel right.” I paused a moment, feeling the muscle beneath her shirt. “That and Sarah might murderize me.”
She chuckled softly. “Actually, that’s the other reason why I didn’t.” She paused for a moment. “Roger actually kept telling me to go for it.”
Huh, weird. It was probably the wrong moment to mention it, but… “You call him by his name.”
That got a soft sigh out of her. “For a long time, he was a once-a-month father. Always someone that needed him, always another trip to be making. Things got better after this contract, but as soon as I was old enough, he dragged me along with. Molly was already off and living on her own by then. Things have gotten better, and I call him Dad at home, but… I don’t know, it just sounds weird in public, you know?” When I didn’t say anything, she glanced over her shoulder. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
“Nah, you’re cool. I know how it is. My… parents aren’t exactly close to me either. I’ll be honest with you; I’ve always been the sort to take care of my own stuff than rely on them. For everything else, Chris and Sarah were always stepping up to the plate. You know, siblings and all. My parents and I never really got the chance to bond.”
She was silent for a moment. “Do you think that I should call him Dad more?”
Now it was my turn to gently tap the back of her head with my palm. “Nah. I mean, it makes sense, you know? Let people think what they think, and keep presenting yourselves as professional, you know? Maybe explain to him that you call him Roger in public because of the business, and he should be okay with that.
“Also, remind me never to learn to ride.” I assaulted another knot. “If you just driving the horses does this much…” My lips twisted upwards as a line hit me. “…Then I really don’t want to know what a stallion between my legs would do.”
She snorted so hard I thought she was going to wake everyone, but if they weren’t immune from Roy’s snoring by now, they never would be.