As we all walked home, it felt so surreal. We all knew each other, and I counted almost all of our guests as good, dear friends, but we’d never actually spent much time actually talking. When we were mercs, we’d tried not to be too overly social — the fact that any one of these people could die at any moment does that to a person. When we did talk, subjects were kept in such a way that we could focus on the task at hand. Sure, some new people were overly chatty, but the pros were friendly and sociable without getting too close. The rule was, keep them close enough to trust, but still at arm’s reach.
It had taken two years for Amy to build up the courage to ask about my dreams, after all. And that was with our talking almost nightly while on the road. Sis and I had learned professionalism from some of the best out there.
Now, my arm was easily around Amy’s shoulders as we walked. We’d gotten Roger’s face redressed, and now he was needling Sarah on occasion as she carried the TV home with us. Karen, who I hadn’t gotten to know very well before now, had been telling us stories about growing up with two sisters and three brothers. Manuel… Well, he’d always been a follower in many ways, but he’d even gotten round to talking about his own parents a bit.
Chris was eating all of this up. When most people thought about tinkers, they pictured someone who was content to sit in a workshop all day long, willingly becoming a recluse. Or someone who had to charge into battle to try out their latest toys. Both were fairly common, to be honest, but there were as many personality types behind tinkers as there were anything else.
Nobody batted an eye when they learned that he liked to cook, but they didn’t ask themselves why. Meals brought people together. As kids, we’d all gather up into the great hall for at least dinner, swapping stories, talking about all the dumb stuff that kids do. Chris had loved those times, talking with his mouth full. It only made sense, at least to me, that he’d try an encourage times like that.
Amy looked up at me, grinning. “You know, Mom would have hated you.”
Past tense bad. Every alarm bell in my head started going off. But my smile remained wide and friendly. “Is that so?” I knew that I shouldn’t have pressed, but dang it, once the door was opened…
“Yeah,” Roger said with a nod. By his expression, he seemed to be at peace with it. “You’re a hard guy to read sometimes. Laid back when you should be worked up. Friendly to everybody. She always thought that the more friendly that people were, the more secrets they were hiding. Or with how long you’d be gone for.”
“And here I was, thinking that she’d find me too dangerous.”
Both Roger and Amy laughed at that. “No,” he said calmly. He took in a breath. “No, she was always the more badass of the two of us. She was a Cauldron para like myself, picked up the same slow-aging thing as me, but without the healing problems. She’d been a member of the Protectorate out of… somewhere in Florida, I can’t remember where. We ended up meeting after Gold Morning. Then Molly was born.”
A lot of couples old enough to have fought in Gold Morning met after the fact. Not quite a year later, there were a lot of babies born, and not just to parahumans. Molly, though. That must be Amy’s sister. I filed that away for future reference.
“I didn’t even realize we had problems,” he continued. “She was in the New Brockton Wardens, and I… Well, my abilities were in high demand. I’d be gone for months at a time, so I didn’t see any real change between me and Tina.”
“It was different for Molly and I,” Amy said, an odd tone to her voice. “Molly was a little young, but she found a job and moved out one time after Rog… After Dad left. Mom had started seeing this guy while Dad was gone, and he’d gotten her hooked on… I dunno what it was. She’d clean herself up when he’d come home, and then blow most of his pay on her boyfriend and the drugs. Molly and I weren’t sure how to talk to Dad about it, so we just kept silent.
“Molly tried talking me into coming with her, but… I dunno. Mom didn’t care. If anything, that just made it worse, because she only had one of us to worry about. Then, about a week before Dad was due to come home, she just said to me ‘You’re on your own’ and left.”
Everybody was silent as they talked. I think that everybody knew that they had to talk about it, vent it. Let all the bad out. Everybody needed that on occasion.
“I was about a week late,” Roger said, focusing on the path ahead of us. “Amy was about half-starved. Molly had helped her out with food, but she only had so much money herself. Just because she had a job didn’t mean that it was a good one.”
“I’ll give her this much,” Amy added. “At least Mom stocked the pantry before I left. I got real good at potatoes before Dad got home.” She chuckled a little, genuinely amused by that. I actively tried not to wrap my head around how it could amuse her.
“I asked with the Wardens, and they said that Tina had just up and vanished. I tried using my power… I think it somehow taps into how many people know the place that I want to go, but not enough people knew. Or wherever she was just wasn’t enough.”
He sucked in another breath. Sometimes, even if someone was at peace with something, they needed to air it out. To put it into perspective. Perhaps it was his first real love or something, I didn’t know. But they were talking, and there wasn’t a polite way to change the topic until they stopped.
“Anyway, I stuck around for about a month before the money from my last haul got tight. I tried working as a lumper for the teleporter, but I still had my own wagon, and the pay wasn’t the greatest for how hard of work it was. Stevedores make more money, but ships don’t come in as often.” He sighed softly. “That and I prefer not going into Bet if I can help it.”
“I can respect that,” I said with a nod. I couldn’t understand it, I had nothing similar to compare it to, but I could respect it. Seeing the remains of the world you grew up in, wrecked and destroyed, had to be hard on a person.
“I still had my own wagon, and still had enough saved for a horse, and the urge to travel still inside of me. So eventually, I asked Amy if she’d go with me.” He grinned at her. “She said no at first. Naturally.”
Amy stuck her tongue out at him before grinning up at me. “I thought he wanted me to be his lackey or something. It wasn’t until he clarified that I’d be his business partner, and that I’d have a say in everything that I finally agreed. I had to fight a little to get equals on it, but he promised.”
“How old were you?” Karen asked.
“Fourteen.” Karen flashed her a look, and she grinned. “The Heritage Business Act got passed that year. Dad had to make sure I was still getting an education and pass certain exams, but I found that studying on the road worked well for me. I graduated by the time I was sixteen.” She’d told me that before. The top ten percent, if I remembered correctly.
“Now, just because we were partners doesn’t mean that I always took what she said to heart. She had some weird thoughts when we first started out, so I had to spend time teaching her about the business. We got lucky, though, to pick up the route to the Sons of Bitch. Good pay, regular routes, and enough time home that we could enjoy the money we made.”
“And here we are,” Amy said, bumping into me. I flashed her a grin and gave her a bit of a squeeze around the shoulders. I knew a topic change when I saw one. She looked to Sarah. “I’m surprised you have a TV.”
Sarah smirked a little, looking down at the one she carried. It was heavy, but it didn’t give her any problems beyond being a bit awkward to carry. “Mom and Dad like it. I’m not the biggest fan-”
“Bullshit,” Chris said in a sing-song voice. He moved ahead of us before turning around and walking backwards. “You all wouldn’t believe how often the three of us end up sprawled across the couch watching a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before. Hell, her favorite is-”
“Bro,” she said dangerously.
“-The Calcutta Caper,” he finished, ignoring her.
Sarah looked fit to be tied, but Roger chuckled softly. “Nothing wrong with that. Up until Gold Morning, I used to watch E.T. all the time. I even had it on Blu-Ray.”
“Blu-Ray,” Chris said wistfully, his face softening. “I’d kill for a good library and a Blu-Ray player. We’ve had to kitbash our DVD player a couple of times before Jordan picked us up one that wasn’t refurb for Christmas one year.”
I chuckled softly. “I wish I could have been there to see you open it.” Amy looked up at me curiously. I made a face and tilted my head one way and then the other. “I was at school at the time, and one of my classes was running later than I would have liked. We couldn’t afford a teleport that year, not with the folks setting up my digs and paying for school. I could have spent the last of my cash on a wagon back, but wagons are slow. There weren’t any stagecoaches heading straight to Burlington, and even if I’d taken one of the coaches and done the whole layover thing, I would have had, like, one day before I had to head back to school.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, frowning.
I flashed her a brilliant grin. “In the end, it worked out. I got to help a bunch of folks have an awesome holiday season, and I got to open all of my presents in front of everyone else that had gone home for the holidays.” Still, it had been hell, being separated from everyone like that.
“But you could mail the presents home?” Manuel asked.
Sarah chuckled a little. “Bro got a job helping a tinker, and he starts buying presents, like, in March?” I nodded, though I usually started looking in February. “So he’d wrap them up and mail them back, have Mom and Dad sit on them until birthdays or whatever. He-”
“Oh crap!” I exclaimed, my eyes going wide. I looked over everybody, a tremor of excitement running through me. “Since you’re here, I’m gonna go ahead and give you all your presents now!” Well, Roy wasn’t here, but…
Roger took a deep breath. “You don’t have to-”
“Yes I do!” I sprinted forward a few paces before realizing that folks weren’t moving like I was. “Come on!” I grabbed Amy and Karen’s hands and began to drag them along with me as I hurried towards the house. They both made a sound of protest, but fell in line easily enough. One thing that I’d learned was that when I got excitable, it got infectious. Not as much as Chris could get infectious, but still.
Actually, maybe his earlier excitement was why I was so hyped up now.
I barely paused to hit the side entrance to my room before dragging the two of them inside. Once inside, I let them go and went for my bed, almost crawling underneath it.
“So these are your digs,” Amy said as I shifted boxes.
“Yeah. Be honest with you, though, your wagon feels about as much as home. Except for my family and a small handful of others, I’m not that close to most people in town. Some guards, the local Wardens, a couple of shopkeepers and that’s it for the most part.”
“That’s not depressing at all,” Karen said flatly.
“Nah.” I found the boxes that I wanted, and started shuffling stuff around to make sure that I could get everybody Roger and Manuel’s when they got here. “I know that we don’t talk personal all that often while on the road, but I think of all of you as being pretty close friends. And since home is where the heart is…”
I popped up, leaving the birthday present hidden, and held out a box to each of them. “Merry early Christmas!”
Karen took hers faster than Amy, ripping it open with a grin. It was wrapped in plain butcher’s paper, and I apparently hadn’t gotten the glue quite right so it stuck to the box a little bit, but after a moment’s hesitation she peered inside. “I…”
“When we first met, you showed a lot of interest in my belt and how I had stuff clipped into it.” She pulled it out, admiring the four pouches and the spade that was attached. It was one of my old ones, but Chris had spent an hour or so modifying it so that it would fit her easily. “Your trowel and hatchet take up pack space, and also make more weight. This accomplishes the same thing as a trowel with a little more leverage. One side’s serrated so you can saw with it, and I spent some time making sure that the other edge is nice and sharp. I also modified the webbing on the cover so it should connect firmly to your pack.”
She pulled the instruction booklet I’d written up out of the box before smiling up at me. “Thanks, Jordan.”
“You’re welcome,” I said with a wide grin. “Just try everything out first before you swear by it, alright? It takes some getting used to.” I had one stashed in my pack, as did Sarah. I turned to Amy now, grinning like a fool. “Come on, your turn.”
She turned the smaller package over in her hands before looking up to me with a frown. “I haven’t got anything for you, though.”
“It’s alright,” I said with a bit of an exasperated sigh. “Trust me, you being here is a present enough for me.”
Amy stared at me for a moment before quickly looking down to open the present. After a moment, she pulled it out of the much smaller box, looking at it in awe. “It’s one of your water filters, isn’t it?”
I nodded eagerly. “Chris started quietly selling them to the Wardens this year, so I snagged one. Unlike mine, the battery’s built-in, so it takes up less space. There’s a, uh, a owner’s manual in there. Big thing is, move the switch to activate it, then when you’re done-”
“Put it almost in the fire so the batteries can recharge.” She looked up at me, a soft smile on her face. “I paid attention to what you two did with your batteries. Thank you…”
“Oh, I’m not done yet!” I took the filter and the box from her, moving back to my bed. “You’re gonna have to close your eyes and hold out your hands for this one. I don’t have it wrapped yet.”
She hesitated, but slowly did. Quickly, I grabbed the music box from under the bed, gave the key a couple of cranks, and put it into her hands carefully. “Happy early birthday.”
She opened her eyes slowly before letting out a small gasp. “Jor…” She turned the box over in her hands for a moment before opening it and letting the slow tinkle of music play. “It’s… old.”
And wasn’t as pretty as some of them that I’d seen. It had taken a few lumps over the years, but I’d seen it at a flea market and jumped on it. “It was old before Gold Morning. The person I bought it from said it was from the sixties, but I’m not sure. It’s had some work done to it, but the spring inside is bad and it winds down too quickly. I’d hoped to find a replacement before your birthday, but-”
My words were cut off as she practically jumped on me, hugging me tight. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered into my chest.
I wrapped my arms around her and whispered into her hair. “Pretty girls need nice things, and it was either this or a dress. I decided on a treasure for a treasure.”
When we finally pulled away, Karen was watching us with a tiny grin. Great. I must have made her uncomfortable by not getting her a birthday present, but I didn’t know when hers was. Instead, I chuckled softly and waved around the room. “So, uh, welcome to my abode.”
“Figured you for the type to make your bed,” Karen said, glancing at the mess of sheets.
I laughed awkwardly again. “Nobody’s perfect, and I never saw the point if I’m just going to mess them up again.”
Amy looked around and moved to one of the bookcases. I knew immediately what she was looking at — the one thing that wasn’t a book on it. I took down the stand and offered it to her. “Pictures are expensive, but there’s some good artists out there who just love to have a subject to draw.”
Amy took them, shuffling through slowly. Sis, Bro and I with our arms wrapped around each other and laughing, about seven or eight years ago. We got younger in each one. Chris working on something while Sarah and I studied. The three of us curled up together, napping on the grass. The three of us posing dramatically. We’d pretended we were the Triumvirate while posing for that one. Sarah and I curled around each other while we slept on a bench. That one had been about a week before Chris triggered. Me in a martial arts stance and Sarah winding up to hit something. Sarah and me sitting on the monument. That one was my favorite. And lastly, Sarah helping me learn to read.
“No pictures, then?” Amy asked with a frown. “I don’t have any myself, but I love looking through them.”
I shrugged. “Ask Sarah and Chris. They have all the photographs. There’s something about someone else putting effort into preserving our memories that appeals to me, you know?”
“I can understand that,” she said with a nod.
Karen quit looking over her shoulder and gestured towards the halberd on the wall. “Old one? I didn’t see you as the sort to hold onto weapons you aren’t going to use.”
My face broke into a wide smile. “Yeah, that one’s special. My first real weapon, and I helped to forge it.” I moved over to it, taking it down from the wall. “The balance isn’t the best, and it’s too short for me now, but I spent three months working with a smith to make it. Two months of absorbing every single thing that he did, then a month helping him make it while helping him with his other orders.”
I paused for a moment before I flashed the girls a sheepish grin. “Okay, so I was mostly just working the bellows for him, but it’s hard work, and totally still counts.”
“Totally,” Karen said with a smirk.
“It was getting a little short when Chris made me my current one. The balance on-”
“We’re home!” came a cry from the living room. “Stop your threesome and get in here!”
I could feel my cheeks getting hot. A quick glance revealed that Amy was much the same. Karen, at least, burst out laughing. “And this is why you never speak of the devil.”
I opened my mouth to say something, only to be interrupted by Chris yelling again. “Bro! Sis is having Roger hit me! Make them stop!”
“We’d better go before she gets creative with the punishment,” I said with as good of a grin as I could manage.
In the end, Chris hadn’t suffered too much. I’d let them handle the introductions with the folks, instead focusing on getting the TV set up. Amy had stuck by Roger as he talked with the folks. Old world stuff, finding out where they’d been positioned, where they were from, their old cape names. That sort of thing.
He’d avoided any reference to Gold Morning, I’d noticed.
Now, we were all settled at the table — Sarah had gotten the extra leaves for the table out to make sure that everyone would have a space. I’d expected Chris to have made his roast beast (he refused to let anyone know what kind of meat it was), but he’d instead opted to make spaghetti, garlic bread and potato salad for dinner. What had surprised me, though, was that Karen had helped.
Well, maybe not. The two of them did share a love for cooking. I wondered where hers stemmed?
“So where do you work these days?” Roger asked.
Tabitha smiled a little. “I work as a foreman at the glue factory.” She paused. “Okay, so there’s only ten of us, so the title doesn’t mean that much, really.”
“I’m pretty much the head-honcho at the paper mill,” Tim added. “We found that my power works pretty well for breaking down the pulp, so we can make more than the building would appear to. In fact, there’s been some talk about the owner giving it to me when he retires.”
“No wonder you can afford this place,” Amy said next to me. “Jordan’s room is… Wow.” Such eloquence.
Tabitha laughed softly. “That’s an addition that we had built on, actually. With his weird sleeping habits and appetite, having his own kitchen was pretty much a gimmie. That and when he was home from school, we wanted to make sure that he had plenty of his own space. The other two would use it for their games when he wasn’t home.”
“Fancy educated boy,” Manuel said, looking at me with a grin before looking back to my parents. “I’m surprised that you let him and Sarah be mercs.”
“Well,” Tim started slowly. “I wouldn’t say that we’re happy about it. They’re both smart and young, but…”
“We tried to talk them out of it,” Tabitha cut in. “But in the end, it’s not our place to stop them. It’s their lives, and they did have a thought-out plan for their future. Eventually, they’ll join the Wardens, and then I see them handling training in New York Bet. As much as I’d like them to focus on helping Chris, they seem to be doing rather well for themselves.”
“They are,” Roger said quickly. “Sarah was a little aloof at first, but she turned out to be a rock. And Jordan, for all of his quirks, is excellent at making sure that everything’s okay.”
“It’s a little weird to see the two of you so relaxed.” Sarah raised an eyebrow, and Amy blushed a bit. “N-not to say that you’re stuffy or anything, but you haven’t checked the perimeter or anything and-”
Sarah burst out laughing. “It’s okay, Aims! Relax, I’m just givin’ you shit.”
Tim laughed, rich and deep as Amy fidgeted. When she stuck out her tongue at Sarah, the laughter redoubled from more people at the table, myself included.
“Does he do that weird singing of his while on the road?” Tabby asked curiously.
“God, yes,” Manuel said with a roll of his eyes.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly.
“Bah, you’re fine, man.”
Roger was grinning. “I kind of like it, to be honest. It’s kind of relaxing, and I always know where he is. But yes, he does. When he’s walking alongside the wagon, when he’s practicing… Whenever he’s doing something that he doesn’t need to think about, it’s pretty much a guarantee that he’s going to be singing to himself. Did he pick that up from you?”
“I refused to do kareoke at prom,” Tabitha said with a small giggle.
“We aren’t sure where he picked it up,” Chris added in. “Knowing him, he probably read something about someone doing it when he was little and picked it up.”
“Katanas,” I said with a nod. “I was curious about how they were made, and I found out that the smiths would sing songs while doing it. That would tell them how many times to fold the metal, how to work it, how long to keep it in the fire. All that stuff. I was having problems with my katas at the time, I wouldn’t pause right, so I started singing in order to get my pacing right. Eventually, I just got into the habit of doing it to everything.”
“Including hunting,” Sarah said in a teasing tone.
“And now you know why Sis does the hunting without me.”
Tim took the chance to change the subject. “So, any plans for what you four are going to do while Chris finishes up his little job?”
“Help out,” Roger said with a nod. “He’s explained that we can’t do too much to help while the machine’s actually running, but until then we’re going to find ways to make ourselves useful.”
Karen looked to Chris. “Especially since someone doesn’t seem to know what a mop is.”
“That place is huge, and there’s always work to be done, so bite me!”
“Present it!” she demanded, before making a show of snapping her teeth together.
Chris started to stand, but Tabitha cut in. “Christopher!”
He faked an innocent look as he finished standing. “I was just gonna get dessert, momma. Honest!”
I rose a well. “I’ll clean up.”
“I’ll help,” Amy said quickly.
“You don’t have to.”
“I’m not actually a fan of lemon stuff, so it’s no big.”
We collected up the plates and the leftover spaghetti and moved into the kitchen. As soon as Chris had everyone served and had settled down, Amy sidled up next to me and went onto her tiptoes to whisper in my ear. “I think Karen is sweet on your brother.”
“Really?” I looked down to Amy.
“Mm-hmm.” Her grin threatened to split her face in two. “When have you ever known her to act like that to somebody?”
I glanced back to them, but they were busy talking to the folks again. Dang. I’d need to watch them interacting more to get a good feel. “To be fair, she hasn’t been with us the longest. But on the other hand… Well, tomorrow there’s another social down at the lodge. We can all go, and see how the two get along. Maybe see if the two get onto the dance floor.”
Amy grinned up at me. “Do you dance?”
I flashed her a wicked look. “You’ll just have to wait and see now, won’t you?” She rolled her eyes, and I laughed. “Seriously, though, you all should stay for the movie tonight. We’ll keep an eye on the two of them and see how it goes.”
She nodded once. “Sounds like a plan. Now… How do I work this faucet? I can’t figure it out.”
I yawned, my eyes opening a crack. Not that it helped matters, as they were too flooded with tears for me to see anything. All that I could tell was that it was dark.
I lifted my head slowly. Last that I’d known, we’d been laughing over some comedy about parahuman investigators. When had I fallen asleep? And why did they let me sleep after the movie was over? That was… unusual.
Amy shifted against me, causing me to bolt upright. “Gah,” I whispered before sniffling. “I’m sorry! I-”
“Is okay, Jor.” She looked tired, but peaceful. “You fell asleep right before Tango went to the tinker.” She smiled a little. “You curled against me a little after that. Your sister said you’d only gotten one nap in, and she wasn’t surprised that you’d passed out.”
I looked around, but she caught on fast. “Everybody went to bed an hour or two ago. I told them to go, that I didn’t mind. Besides, you’re comfortable when you aren’t wearing that armor.”
I blushed, and was thankful that it was too dark for her to see it. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She pulled a knee up to her chest and put her head on it so she could look at me. It was too dark to see her expression. “I’ve never seen someone so comfortable touching other people before. Your sister said that you’ve always been like that, though. Your parents said that it was a little awkward at first, but they got used to it from the three of you.”
I smiled a little, thinking back. People here in town used to look at us funny. Not that they’d ever say anything; folks didn’t dare risk pissing off Chris, not after he set up the first generator. “Still…”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s kind of nice.” She paused, then chuckled softly. “When I was little, Dad used to love cuddling me. When I got older, he’d brush either my or Molly’s hair. Eventually, it got to the point where he’d only get close to me like that if he wanted to talk in private. I’d forgotten how nice is was to just… feel someone else’s warmth.”
I smiled a little. “Feel a sense of personal connection to them, feel their presence directly.”
“Yeah.” She paused for a moment, then suddenly stood. “Anyway, I’m going to head back to the hotel and hit the sack.”
I sniffled again as I made my way to my feet. “I’ll take you back.”
“No,” she said quickly. “I, uh… I got it. Thanks, Jor.”
I guided her to the door, having long since memorized it, and watched her as she left. She paused a little ways down and turned back to wave. I returned it before closing the door and heading to my room. That was nice of her, sacrificing her own comfort like that so I could sleep.
Now, though, wasn’t the time to think about it. I’d only gotten an hour of training in today, and I had plenty to make up for. Plus, I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep until I wore myself out a little. Might as well get to work.