I was only able to stay asleep for three hours, tops. Too much sleeping during the trip, and as much as I might like being asleep, my body could only handle so much. Even worse, waking up at this time of night meant that there wasn’t a lot that I could do at the house.
As quietly as I could I grabbed my old pack, from when we’d first started as mercenaries. Since Chris had started working on new backpacks for me, I hadn’t needed it much, but I still had a good purpose for it. The rugged canvas groaned as I slung it over my shoulders, the books inside shifting. I wasn’t so fond of how they poked me in the back, but as I sneaked out the door, I knew that I’d be less happy with it later.
When in doubt, with little that I could do, I could always run.
Most people looked at me oddly over how I ran around town with a pack on, but I’d set up a route that kept me easily within the guard’s patrol areas. They’d gotten used to it. Besides, I had my route set up so that each lap was a quarter of a mile.
If I had to run, it wasn’t always appropriate to drop my pack. Also, my armor might be light for the protection it provided, but it still had some weight to it. I didn’t want to get too used to running without having to carry more than my own body, so this was good. Even if the books threatened to break my back. Some days, after a good run, my sternum hurt pretty bad. I wouldn’t push myself quite so hard today.
The first mile took me about nine minutes. For the second mile, I put effort into it and made it through in about six or seven. I probably could have shaved even more time off, but I hadn’t worked my knee enough yesterday, and it was really starting to hurt.
In a strange way, I regretted it. Not the time, nor the running, but that I didn’t push myself harder. I needed to work on my outright sprinting more. Long distance running was good, but it burned as much muscle as you gained. They simply didn’t have the time to build themselves up before you started shredding them again. Sprinting meant more breaks, more time for the muscles to begin the process of rebuilding themselves. But then again, wearing myself out a bit was what I was going for.
I sneaked back inside, back into my room, fighting to keep from breathing hard. I didn’t want to wake anybody up. I flicked my hand light to check my clock; it was only about 3:20. Or 4:15, I couldn’t tell with that fast of a check in the dark. No matter. I still had plenty that I could do, and honestly, needed to do.
First came the minor exercises that I used to strengthen my knee. Stuff adapted from yoga, though the textbooks that I’d read on physical therapy got tied in, too. Then came the katas. If I’d had my way, I would have had a proper strength training regime before I did them, but that wasn’t an option. The theory was that when your body was exhausted, the training that you did would become muscle memory better. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but I was willing to err on the side of caution.
I kept my styles varied, making sure that I kept sharp. Any skill that went unused got soft, and to be honest, I was never sure when I’d have to apply what I’d learned. I started with Brazilian jiujitsu but I moved on quickly. Jeet kun do, savate, unarmed sqay, southern preying mantis, lausatök, muay thai, kyokushin, and judo were on my plate for today. To be fair, I wouldn’t have minded going on further, but it was starting to get light out.
Sweat poured off my body and made my light shirt cling. Despite the warm night and my overheated body, I still felt a slight chill from the slight breeze when I stepped outside. It felt strange to be doing anything outside of my armor, but sis got pissy when I wore it around town. I could understand it; this was our home, and we didn’t want to seem too different than everyone else. Even if we would be soon. The looks I got were almost as bad.
Light, as weak as it was, gave me more options on what to do. It was our first morning back, after all. Already, there were people slowly starting to mill about. It didn’t take too long for the general store to open. They tended to cater to the farmers and the like, people who needed basic supplies before they went to work. Sun up to sun down, even if the sun wasn’t up yet.
I smiled at the clerk, even if I couldn’t remember his name. What I bought, though, wasn’t as much as I could have. Well, I did splurge on the butter. We had a while, and Sis had been riding me about my spending habits, so I figured it would be better to go easy than heavy. Besides, I wasn’t sure what all was in the fridge.
Back at home again, I headed for the kitchen. The electric stove made things far, far easier for this. Half of the bacon fried, drained, and crumbled. Cheese, butter, onion, salt, and eggs got added to it, before it all went into the oven. I wasn’t the most fond of cooking, to be honest, but I was simply ravenous. When you spent as much time training as I did, you learned to cook out of necessity.
By the time that I heard shuffling in the rest of the house, the sausage, ham, and bacon fried noodles were almost done. I quickly tossed the sliced bread into the rack I’d made for Christmas one year and threw it into the oven. I’d barely gotten the first round of pancakes started when Chris stumbled blearily into the dining room.
“Good morning, good morning,” I sang to him, grinning from ear to ear.
He stared at me for a long moment, trying to take it all in. After a few minutes, a smile made a valiant effort to cross his face. “Did I mention that I love it when you’re home?”
I chuckled a little, flipping the pancakes. “Get the butter and the syrup onto the table, and I’ll fix you up a plate.”
He became living proof that a person could move quickly right after waking up. “Butter looks funny,” he said quietly.
“Cow butter.” That got him excited enough to get the silverware out and ready. Burlington didn’t have very much in the way of cattle at all; all of our cow’s milk and butter came from another community. They relied mostly on goat’s milk here. With the threat of wildlings, goats just made more sense anyway.
I filled up his plate and made my way over. “Bacon, breakfast quiche, bacon-fried noodles, sausage, ham, pancakes, tomato, and toast. Only the best!”
“Did I mention that you’re my favorite brother?” said a voice from the door.
“Fuck you,” Chris growled, glaring at Sarah. “I called dibs!”
“Fight you for it.”
“Pistols at twenty paces.”
Sarah flipped him off. It was good-natured, though. We’d gone through this routine more times than I’d counted. When we finally got our new armor, she and I would be fighting over which one of us got to claim him as our favorite brother. And when she cooked, it would be much the same. I got plates and drinks ready for all of us, including the folks, before settling down at the table.
Finally, Chris piped up. “So, I figure your first aid kits were probably empty, or close to it, so I made up refills for you two. Also, I finally got around to making you knives out of the same stuff that I made Jordan’s halberd out of.”
“Cool! Thanks!” I made extra sure to keep my face cheerful until I could shovel more food into my mouth. Weight was weight, and it added up fast when you were walking. What seemed like nothing when you first added it might end up dragging you down a mile later. Sure, it would be comparatively light to the knife I currently carried, but it was also infinitely sharper. Cutting food wasn’t something that I wanted to do with one of his specials, not with how easily it would cut. Which meant that I’d have to carry two knives. Which meant unnecessary weight.
Still, a blade that was as sharp as obsidian and never needed to be sharpened, with extreme resilience… Well, I wasn’t about to turn my nose up at that. Besides, even with the machinery up and running, it wasn’t an easy process. His wasn’t a “make and forget” kind of power — it meant constant adjustments and maintenance for the machinery that made these materials. Especially machines like that one, which hadn’t been used in a few years. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by bringing anything up, not when he’d put so much effort into it.
“We’ll try everything on tomorrow,” Sarah said, giving me a pointed look.
I opened my mouth to reply when I noticed movement. Our parents walked in slowly, bags under their eyes and a slight wince to their expression. Yeah, they’d been drinking pretty hard last night.
“Didn’t think you’d be home so soon,” Tim said as he settled into his chair.
“The Queen Bitch of Brockton popped for our ride,” Sarah said with a smirk.
Chris broke out into laughter, and I had to shovel food into my face to keep from snorting.
Tabby looked at me. “Thank you for breakfast, Jordan.”
Was I that transparent? “No big. I was up and had to do something. I would have made hash browns, but… Well, I’ll pick up some potatoes later.” I half expected sis to glare at me, but she just cut a sausage patty with her fork. Interesting.
“Well, I’ll just have the pancakes and toast,” Tabby said quietly. After a sip of her milk, she continued. “Chris? Since Jordan was nice enough to cook for us-”
“Dishes,” he said with a nod. “No big.” Tabby nodded a little, and he dug back in. There was something about the way he’d said it that was odd. I wasn’t sure, though. I could have been imagining things.
“So, what’s the plan for today?” Tim asked, struggling to find ways to make conversation.
“Knowing Jordan, he’s going to force me to practice my power.” Sarah paused to sip her milk. “Beyond that, there isn’t too much, I don’t think. We have a couple of things planned, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do for the rest of the day.”
“Hmm. Well. I know there’s a social tonight, if you kids would like to go.”
“Fuck yeah,” Chris said with a grin. Tabby glared a little, but didn’t say anything. I just focused on my food rather than saying something myself. We had, all things considered, a full day ahead of us. The irony of us being so busy on a day where we were supposed to be taking it easy wasn’t lost on me.
In the end, we’d only spent a half an hour having sis shoot chunks of wood out of the air with her power. She had pretty good control, but I knew that she could do better if she applied herself more regularly. She probably could have taken out her target in our last fight much earlier if she could lead her targets better. Some blasters got that skill with their powers — Sarah wasn’t so lucky.
After that, I read for a bit, chilled out around the house until lunch, and let Chris prepare a good feast for us. I always felt guilty for eating so much more than sis and yet being a bit thinner than her, but I wasn’t blessed with augmented strength. I had to work hard to maintain my edge.
I changed into a pair of shorts after lunch, an edge of excitement running through my veins. It took Sarah a bit longer before she came into the living room, a smirk on her face. “What do you say we slink off for a bit, eh?”
Her outfit was… different than mine. My shorts came down to my knees, but hers, well… didn’t. Not by a long shot. And her top didn’t leave much to the imagination at all, and was impressively tight. I didn’t necessarily like seeing the scar that ran across her abdomen, but it did looked good on her. Even if her tan lines were rather impressive.
My face split into a wide grin as I jumped to my feet. “Oh, yeah!” I’d already packed a bag just for this. She was laughing as I nabbed it, hooked my arm in hers and practically dragged her out the door. I didn’t care in the slightest.
“My, my,” she said between giggle fits. “Aren’t we excitable?”
I stuck my tongue out at her as we headed through town. I knew just the gate to take. “We only do this, what? Two, three times a year anymore? Of course I’m excited! Remember when we were, y’know, fourteen or something? We’d do this all summer.”
She laughed, leaning into my arm a little. It was nice, the two of us being so carefree for a change. Different. I felt a little stronger, a little faster, a little… I wasn’t sure what. I liked it, though.
“Big fancy educated man.” A couple of teens leered at us, but it wasn’t enough to take the joy out of the day. “Walkin’ around like he owns the place.” Meh, they could think whatever they wanted about me. I honestly didn’t care.
As we passed them, I heard one snort. “At least he’s taking the hambeast with him. Looks like she hit every branch on the-”
Something in me snapped a little. Not completely, but enough. I whipped around with a snarl, taking two steps towards them. My sister was far from a ham beast, and if they thought she was ugly, I’d hate to hear what they said about their own fucking mothers. I’d teach them a lesson in humility by ripping off their goddamn arms and shoving them so far up their asses that they’d be picking their fucking noses.
My advance, as quick as it had started, got brought to a quick end by someone slipping their arms under mine and coming up into a headlock. I quickly stood up straight, trying to force my way out before their hands locked, but that didn’t work. Okay, fine. Fuck them, too. I came down a little, then jumped as best I could. Instead of landing on my feet, I brought my legs up, making me fall further.
As I did, I rotated and twisted, manipulating my center of gravity so that I had better leverage. My own body as the fulcrum, I twisted so that the person holding me had no choice but to go up and over my shoulder, releasing their grip and coming crashing down to the ground. I put my hand on their shoulder and drew back…
…just to see my Sarah staring up at me. “Not worth it,” she said in a harsh voice. “Let it go.”
My face twitched with rage. How… How could she say that? How could she just fucking let them… sully her like that?! I looked over at the pair of farm boys, my eyes starting to hurt from glaring, a muscle just under my eye quivering. Their own eyes were wide and they were taking a step back. Fuck yeah, motherfuckers. We’re fucking mercenaries, we fucking fight for a living! Did they really expect us not to stick up for each other?
Sarah grabbed my face and forced me to look down at her. “Bro. It seriously isn’t worth it. Just let it go.”
“Besides,” another voice said calmly. “I think their dad’s gonna have a few choice words with ’em.” We both looked up as a member of the guard approached, calm and easy, like he was walking to the store. I didn’t recognize him offhand. “Mr. Benge owns a pretty good plot of land, and relies on your brother’s generators to water his crops. He’d hate it if he suddenly had to pay for that electricity.”
“Chris wouldn’t do that,” I said, trying to get my sudden burst of anger under control.
“You know that, I know that, hell, Mr. Benge probably knows that. But even so, Mr. Benge also knows that you don’t needle the siblings of the guy who gives you power when they’re minding their own business. Trying to start a fight with people who just want to go have some fun. Especially when one of them could pulp a person’s head.” The guard’s eyes were locked on the two assholes. “I’d be willing to bet that, after I have a chat with him, he’ll have a few choice words to say to these two.”
He looked down at the two of us. “And I’d appreciate it if I didn’t have to call my wife to take care of the two of you. I think it’d be better for everyone if you just went about your business and let me handle this, before it becomes a matter of the law.”
I looked down at Sarah, taking a deep breath. “Sorry.”
“S’okay,” she said, letting go of my face and releasing her grip from my shorts. When had she grabbed them? “Just looking out for me.”
We untangled and I helped her up. Immediately, she turned to the guard. “How is Jenny doing, anyway?”
The guard smiled a little. “She had to put in her notice for leave. They’re going to be sending someone else to fill her spot here soon.”
“Nope!” He grinned, practically splitting his face in two. “But she sure doesn’t feel comfortable being a Warden while pregnant.”
Oh, that Jenny! That made him… Brian, right! I laughed, moving to clap him on the shoulder. “Congratulations, man!”
Brian shrugged a little. “We found out last week. The doc says she’s close to four months along.”
Sarah squealed with delight before turning to me. “Think we can convince Chris to make a cake?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Brian said, waving his hand. “Save it for the baby shower. Anyway, I’d better get going. You two take care today, alright?”
We gave him a healthy wave and were on our way again. Now, we were silent. Sarah seemed to still be in a good mood, but I was far from it. I didn’t get angry often, and when I did it usually passed quickly. And honestly, I did have good control over my temper most of the time. But when I did lash out…
I was glad that Sarah had been there. I was very glad. Brian had been right; there wasn’t any need for me to punish those two, and had she not stepped in, I probably would have given them a beating they wouldn’t soon forget. I should have let it slide. But I hadn’t. Had she not been there…
I didn’t like it when I got like that. I felt like I’d failed. All that self-control that I’d worked so hard on seemed to mean absolutely nothing. My sister being there only made it feel even worse. I hadn’t just failed myself, but I’d failed her as well.
But I still smiled, bright and cheery, for her sake. Just because I’d messed up didn’t mean that I had to ruin her day.
By the time we’d made it out of town, I felt a little bit better. Not much, but a little. When I saw that old tree, though, I instantly began to feel better in general. By the time we passed it, and I could see our destination ahead, I was very nearly giddy. By the time we got to the river’s edge, I was running ahead of Sarah to get a glance at it.
This was our spot. A bit of privacy for some fun. The water level was higher than usual — not that I was complaining. That meant that people didn’t need to worry so much about irrigation. Finally, the rain we’d had this year meant something good, without it being so much we had to worry about floods. Yeah, a good thing for everybody, then.
I turned around and headed back for Sarah, who hadn’t picked up her pace in the slightest. Instead, she calmly dropped her belt to the ground, a vulpine grin on her face. As we met, she put a hand on my chest, gently pushing me back.
“Been a while,” she purred. “Hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said softly, working on my own belt. “Not since spring, when it was colder. Been wanting to do this all summer.” I casually dropped it to the ground, my knife making it thud a little harder.
Her nose wrinkled with amusement. “I bet.” She stopped close to the drop into the river, grinning wide enough to show all her teeth. “Ready?”
Dramatically, she lowered herself to her knees, her eyes on me the entire time. I looked down at her, took a deep breath… And jumped, curling my legs up under me. As I kicked down, I met a sudden resistance, heard the distinctive whomp of her power, and then gravity seemed to have no hold on me.
Kicking hurt my knee. Jump kicking never had the power that a kick from the ground would have. I knew these things, but I loved jumping. I loved the rise, and I loved the fall. When we’d been kids, after Sarah had triggered, we’d come up with this use of her power. Using her concussive force to propel me even higher. Who needed a diving board, anyway?
As I neared my apex, I found myself almost perpendicular with the horizon, looking up into that brilliant blue sky and pounding sun. I felt so very, very… free. Even as gravity took hold again, even as I continued my arc. I’d timed everything right — my feet went up and over, so that by the time I splashed into the water, they were under me again.
I came up to the surface, spraying water away from my face with a laugh. I’d missed this so much. “C’mon! It’s cool, but not nearly as bad as last time!” We’d almost gotten sick from how cold the water had been.
After a moment, I heard her power activate, only to watch Sarah backflip into the water. A moment later, she popped up, laughing. “Why did we ever stop doing this?!”
“I don’t know!” Her laughter was infectious, not that it took much at the moment. I playfully splashed some water in her direction, getting a splash in return. We’d never been the type of people to get heavily into splash fights. Which was part of the reason why Chris hadn’t come with us; he seemed to enjoy almost drowning people.
“How’s your knee feel? Up for another?”
In the end, we’d spent a few hours swimming, spending almost as much time in the water as we did out of it. And that included the nap that I’d taken while soaking. We’d even come up with a new, weird way to launch me; with me doing a handstand on her hands. I didn’t get as much height, but it meant that I wasn’t walking funny.
Of course, now my shoulder and elbow were complaining.
We’d stopped to get a haircut on our way back — we both liked it short, but for different reasons. Sarah really looked cute in a pixie cut, and I preferred it short because now my hair didn’t look like I had a perpetual case of bedhead no matter what I did with it.
Chris met us as we walked through the door. “You two look like you had fun,” he said with a smirk. “And got a good tan, too.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sarah gave him a playful shove. “What’s cookin’? I smell something good.”
“Roast in the slow cooker.” He lead the way to the living room, flopping on the couch. Sis and I joined him. “It’s got a few hours left. I’ll start cooking the rest later.”
Chris did all the cooking at home. He’d started taking cooking classes before he even triggered. In a way, triggering as a Tinker had disappointed him; any other class of parahuman and he could have still gotten a job as a chef. Even Thinkers could have had any job they wanted, just using their specialty on the side. Tinkers, sadly, were a valuable commodity… when they could get the equipment and parts they needed to work.
Still, he at least got to cook for us. And the neighborhood. And anybody else that he could get a chance to.
“Brian Benge knocked up his wife,” I said casually. “I’m thinking they deserve a congratulatory cake.”
Chris grinned a little. “Yeah. I can do that. Picked up some lemons at the store today, and I haven’t had a reason to make lemon cake in ages.” I was surprised he picked them up on a whim like that. They could get expensive. His smile didn’t last, though. “Figure the folks will be home shortly.”
I nodded solemnly. “I gotcha.” I slapped my knees to help ease me back up, hiding my slight irritation over the fact that I had just sat down. “I haven’t kept up on my shooting. I’ll change and hit up the range. Nab me when dinner’s ready?”
Sarah flashed me an apologetic smile. “Thanks, Jordan.”
“No problem,” I said, flashing her a smile to hide the hurt. “Do what you gotta.”
Draw the revolver, assume the proper stance, fire six times as quick as you can. Draw the knife with your left hand as you holster the pistol, throw at the second target.
It seemed like such a simple routine, but it wasn’t easy. Quickdrawing itself was difficult. Hitting all six shots with a degree of accuracy on a small target, when not only were you shooting as fast as you could but were also dealing with a hurting arm only made it harder. Actually hitting the second target with a knife drawn from your chest as quickly as possible, with your off hand, while also holstering the gun? That made the entire thing almost impossible.
I walked over to check how I’d done. I’d hit the hanging target twice, the paper twice, and had missed twice. I wish I knew what order it had been in. The post that I’d hung my second target on had been hit, well below the paper. Well, it still counted for something.
I collected my knife, trying to think about how I could do better. My stance was good, rock solid, and I could get into it before my left hand even joined my right on the revolver. I used to be able to get ten yards further with this accuracy, but I was getting rusty. In the end, I chalked it down to practice. At least I could still at least hit the paper ten yards closer.
I turned to find Sarah staring at my ammo boxes. “Bought a lot.”
“Wasn’t sure how long it was going to take.” I looked at the setting sun. It had taken longer than a couple of hours. I made my way back slowly.
She looked at me, tired. Emotionally drained. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s cool,” I said with a shrug.
“No, it’s not. They’re your parents, too.” Okay, that I hadn’t been expecting. “You deserved to be there. I don’t want you to feel… I dunno, left out?”
“I don’t,” I said with a smile. “I get it, I really do. I’d just make them more uncomfortable if I would have been there. It’s no biggie, Sis. Honest.”
She gave me a weak smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. After a moment, she held out her hand. When I didn’t respond, she made a gimmie gesture. I put my hand to my hip and she nodded. Carefully, I handed her the pistol, making sure it didn’t point at either of us.
She seemed more comfortable in releasing the tumbler and carefully removing the spent shell casings than she did looking at me.
“Trigger discipline,” I said quietly.
“Thanks.” She adjusted her grip so that she wouldn’t accidentally put her finger near the trigger. “They, uh… They said that we didn’t have the right to tell them to stop. It got a little… loud. I was a little worried that I’d have to…”
She was worried that it would have lead to a fight proper. “It didn’t.”
“Yeah.” She put the last bullet in the tumbler and snapped it back into place. “But I don’t know if we got through to them. I… kind of walked out.”
“Ah.” What else could I say? Instead, I walked to the line, hanging up a new target and heading back.
“I don’t…” Sarah was silent a moment before shook her head and walked to the firing line. It was a weekday, and most people had already headed off for the evening. Usually, the guards were the main ones to use the firing range. And the admittedly few mercs who called Burlington home.
She fired off a round, going wide. “You’re jerking the trigger,” I said softly. “Squeeze it.”
I nabbed my rifle and barely got it raised before she fired again, this time clipping the paper. “Adjust left.” Had she used her power, she would have hit it easily. I wasn’t even sure why she’d ever learned to use a gun in the first place, since it was a completely different skill.
No, wait. She’d confessed she’d had a crush on Michael. Right.
Another round, this time I could see it hitting the paper through my scope. “Two points.” She nodded, took a breath, and fired again. “Three points.” Another shot. “Full five.” Another. “Another center.”
We both lowered our weapons. “Listen, Bro-” Suddenly, she right was in front of me, a hand on my shoulder and a concerned look in her eye.
I blinked, shaking my head a little. “Happen again?”
“Yeah, another seizure.” She frowned a little. “Any other time recently?” I shook my head. “How much sleep did you get last night?”
“A couple of hours,” I admitted. “Too many naps on the trip.”
“I figured.” She tilted her head. “And how long did you spend training before we woke up?”
“Oh, you know. Some jogging, some katas, probably a good three or four hours.” A hand gently smacked me alongside the head. It didn’t hurt, but I still winced. “Is that any way to treat a guy who just had a seizure?”
“C’mon, we both know that if you aren’t sleeping, you just stare off into space for a while.” They weren’t harmful, and if I was walking or doing something, I’d continue to do it. But my brain would just kind of shut off for a little bit. “You only got one nap in today! You know they happen more often if you don’t get enough sleep, especially if you push yourself”
“I know,” I said guiltily. “But… I really wanted to try to sleep through the night, you know? We’ve got to get started tomorrow, and I only want to take a couple of naps, so…”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “And Chris is going to be hopping tomorrow, too, with the both of us helping him. And I left him…”
I quickly took the spent revolver away from her, setting it next to the ammunition and wrapping my arms around her in a fierce hug. “No,” I said softly. “You didn’t fail him, or me. You haven’t abandoned us, or pushed us to the side, or anything like that.
“You did the right thing. You did the smart thing. Rather than dive headfirst into a fight, you walked away to calm down. You’re doing everything that you can to help our parents. There isn’t a single thing in the world wrong with that. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s downright maddening. But you’re doing the best you can. What more can anyone ask for?”
She buried her head into my chest silently, her arms squeezing me tight. I let myself go silent and just held her. Sometimes, words weren’t necessarily what a person needed. Sometimes, all that a body needed was someone who would hold them and offer them the strength that they needed until they could stand on their own.