I let out a mighty yawn as I got out of bed, the kind where the tears stream down your face from both eyes. My body had that slight ache of a pleasant three hour nap that let me know that I’d been twitching the entire time. Still, I wasn’t complaining. I’d desperately needed the sleep.
I was still trying to get the sleep out as I made it downstairs, and I didn’t even need to look into the dining room to tell that Nathan and Taylor were waiting for me. I needed a little something extra first, so it was a few minutes wait before I finally settled down at my assigned place, placing a bowl next to the plate.
“What time did you finally go to sleep?” Taylor asked.
“Didn’t look,” I confessed with a bright smile, hoping that my nose was done running. I didn’t like sniffling at the table.
“Your katas again?”
“Nah.” Well, I did do quite a few, but still. “I picked up a book on Scandinavian paras. I’m mainly familiar with the ones from Japan or from English speaking countries.” Oh, chicken fried steak for breakfast? Eggs and hash browns, too? And the bowl of cereal that I’d poured myself made this a good meal.
Taylor nodded slowly. “As a general rule, most Scandinavian paras didn’t get much limelight in the United States, so I can believe that.” She paused as she cut into her steak. “I’ve been meaning to ask, what do you think of your job?”
I had to wait until I swallowed. “‘s good. It isn’t like what I ever imagined that I’d be doing for winter work, but I’m enjoying it.”
She gave me a soft smile. “Interesting. Most people would be a little miffed about only doing basic maintenance when the people around you are making satellites.”
I chuckled softly, shaking my head. “Then those people are idiots. No, to be fair, the people doing the actual assembly have the easier job. Their machines have to work within a brutal tolerance, and being able to identify what’s going on and figure out a repair when something goes wrong… That’s a real challenge, good to keep the brain on its toes.
“And then there’s the stuff that nobody ever anticipated. Like that incident a while back when the tank blew. It’s a fascinating challenge, but it’s also rewarding. These satellites aren’t ever going to get assembled if maintenance doesn’t do its job perfectly. They can have all the glory, I’m just willing to be quietly giving them that glory.”
Taylor smiled warmly, as if I’d just given the most heartwarming answer in the world.
Nathan, though, spoke up slowly. “I’ve actually been meaning to ask about that.” We both turned to look at him. “Why didn’t you just open up all the doors and let it vent out? Wouldn’t that have been safer than running into a gas-filled chamber?”
Taylor glanced at me, grinning a little. “I’ll let you handle this one, since you did the stupid thing.”
I ducked my head a little, as much to show my embarrassment as to give myself time to chew and swallow.
“Under other circumstances? Yeah, airing it out would have been the best bet. But the building is the problem. I don’t know what it was originally built for, but it wasn’t for making satellites. So we have some rooms that have too much space, some rooms that don’t quite have enough.
“That room was the one that could handle it if one of the fuel tanks they were testing burst without worry about it possibly damaging another room. However, the next room over, where they were testing other things, was pretty cramped. Was, because we’ve shuffled things around quite a bit.” That had been wonderful exercise.
“It was a huge oversight putting the fuel tanks for the burners in there. Sure, it had ventilation, but not the sort of ventilation if those tanks started leaking. Keep in mind, we aren’t talking propane tanks like what you remember. We’re talking tanks that hold hundreds of gallons of liquid fuel that vaporizes almost instantly.
“When you have that much fuel spewing out, opening up the door only makes the entire building an explosion waiting to happen. The entire building will fill up with explosive gas well before it gets to the point that it might be safe, and there’s no telling if something might make a spark in one of the rooms that isn’t a clean room. If we opened all the doors and left that tank going, it could have taken out more than the one building.”
I smiled a little and spread my hands. “The gas had to be shut off. The tank itself wasn’t damaged. We’d at least made sure to reinforce it to the point that we didn’t need to worry. The pipe being busted, though, meant that manually shutting it off was the only option. After that, yeah, we could have opened the room, but nobody was thinking straight.”
Taylor turned to him. “Actually, once the gas was shut off, it was easier to let the fans suck the gas out. It was a way of mitigating the risks of other vital equipment being damaged, equipment that would take months to replace. Since then, we’ve moved things around a bit, making life more difficult for a few people, but also letting us put the gas tank in the adjacent room so it can be shut off safely.
“Maintenance also improved the ventilation.” She turned back to smile sympathetically at me. “I felt so bad for you all.”
“Stop apologizing,” I said with a roll of my eyes. Yeah, the work had sucked, and I’d put in some overtime, but I didn’t mind. I’d lost count of the number of times she’d apologized to us for it.
“Alright, then.” She flashed me a wry grin. “Tell me that you’re going to do something beyond just train and hide in your room this weekend. Come on, what do you do for fun?”
“Well, I’m going to steal Nathan for something after breakfast, but beyond that…” I shrugged a little. “I dunno. I hear there’s a social tonight. I might go there and do some dancing, if I can find a partner.”
“Huh,” Nathan said softly. “I didn’t think you were the type. I’ve never heard any music in your room, other than occasionally hearing your singing when I pass by.”
Mental note, keep it more quiet. I shrugged again. “I’m not, really. I don’t get much out of the dancing itself. It’s more of an exercise, really. Especially when you have a partner. You have to gauge how their body is moving, and adjust your own appropriately.”
He frowned a little. “So it’s like sparring for you?”
“No.” I winced. “Well, kinda. I got into it when they started putting hard limits on my sparring and training time.” Especially after I’d messed up my knee. “But it’s… different.
“It’s like… When you’re sparring, you’re reading your opponent to work against them. With dancing, you’re working in concert with someone. And with some of the dance styles that I learned, the ones that I tried to do the most, you have to have absolute trust in your partner. You’re putting yourself in their hands, and they’re doing the same for you.
“Plus, you have to learn to control your body, and I mean seriously control it. That was perhaps the main draw for me, in the end. It was like, I dunno, partnered slow gymnastics in a way, which is what I liked.”
Nathan nodded a little. “I’m familiar with the basic concept, actually. I’m reminded of a story that I heard once about a football coach making his players take ballet lessons to teach them to control their bodies.” I had to fight to keep from making a face — I hadn’t enjoyed ballet that much, despite having learned a bit from it. “Did you do any sports?”
I shook my head. “Not really. My sister and I played floor hockey once a week, but we weren’t really into it, you know? I enjoyed the physicality of it, but I always felt bad for the people who weren’t the best, or for whomever was losing. It was disappointing to see folks put their all into it and walk away frustrated because it wasn’t enough. Sometimes, someone would sprain their ankle or scrape their knee, or even accidentally take a stick to the face of something, and I always felt bad for them about that.
“So, really, I was never comfortable with sports. I only played because she wanted to, and it was good exercise.”
Well, I had never been into it. Sarah had loved it to death, but she’d always been the more aggressive and competitive of the two of us. There were theories that a passenger influenced people, pushed them towards fighting to some degree. I’d always wondered if that had something to do with it.
Not that she’d been really aggressive, to tell the truth. She was as gentle as anyone. I always wondered just how deep that influence ran with paras. But in the end, it didn’t really matter. There wasn’t really anything that I could do about it.
It was time for a topic change. I took another bite of food before turning to Taylor. “You should go to a social yourself one of these days. You seem to enjoy dealing with people, so it’s probably more up your alley than it is mine.”
Taylor gave me a patient smile. “I just might. Not this weekend, but maybe one of these days. It does sound like fun, I’ll admit. But I’m more curious about what you’re stealing him for.”
It was funny. Thinking back to the accident, she hadn’t been excited. She’d been concerned, sure, but not actually excited by it. Always so calm. Then again, with Nathan’s PTSD, she’d probably spent a good portion of her life having to be calm and patient to help him get through the day.
She seemed supportive of our sparring together. If anything, she’d pushed him towards it. I got the impression that he was perfectly willing to let our morning interactions be all of it, the rest of his time focused on his work, or occasionally watching movies. She was probably forcing him to be social more, like the times he brought dinner to my room. So it was only natural for her to be curious.
I ducked my head a bit. “That’s more… Well, it’s personal.”
Taylor nodded a little. “That’s fine. I understand. One last thing, though, before I let you wolf down breakfast in peace. That meat you’ve got in the slow cooker. It’s been going for a long, long time. When is it going to be done?”
That got a small smile out of me. A recipe that I’d picked up from Chris. “That? Well, tonight I’ll check it, I might even remove the meat, but even then it probably won’t be done for another couple of days.”
That got a curious look out of the both of them, which only made me smile that much more. “I’m getting the essence out of the meat and marrow right now. When I remove the bones and meat, I’ll let it cool for a bit so I can remove the tallow. You might want to use that for cooking. Then I’ll condense it down into a sort of gelatin, then I’ll put it on a drying rack. It’ll turn into a leathery substance that I can cut up from there.
“In the end, it’ll be something that I can add to make a quick soup, kinda like bouillon. I’ll pick up some quick noodles from the store, maybe egg noodles or something. With the cut up pieces that are done, I can just drop them in after the rest of everything is about ready, it’ll dissolve into the water nice and quick, and I can have a tastier lunch at work.”
Nathan was frowning a bit. “Why not just buy bouillon from the store, then?”
“Well, there’s portion control, for one thing. By making this, I can make sure that I’m putting in just enough to give myself a quick meal or snack without wasting any. Then there’s the fact that I can control the exact flavors that are going into it. Lastly, I’ve been using the leftover meat and bones from the dinners I’ve cooked. There’s a lot of nutrients in the bones and connective tissues, and now I’m getting those out of the food, too.”
“How industrious of you,” Taylor said with a small, appreciative smile.
I shrugged, grinning a little. It was unfortunate, in a way, that she’d grown up with Nathan, who was used to pre-Gold Morning life, and who probably fought to keep her in as close of a lifestyle as possible to that. Recipes like this were all too common back home.
“But, I’ll keep my promise and let you eat now. I imagine you’re eager to steal Nathan, and the sooner that you finish your meal, the sooner you can get at it.”
“Is this going to take long?” Nathan asked as he put on his jacket.
“Maybe an hour, depending.” I finished tying my boots and stood, checking the lacing job. Good support there. Not that I needed it for what we were doing, but still. “I want to swing by a place and see if my order came in while we’re at it. More efficient than making two trips, you know?”
He grunted as we made out way out of the house. “You need help carrying stuff home, then? Another project beyond making some jewelry for your sister?”
“Kinda,” I said with a cheery grin.
Fortunately, he let it drop at that. We both seemed content to walk in silence for a bit. I had the feeling that he didn’t talk to many people beyond Taylor, so it was hard for him. I would have preferred some sort of conversation myself, but just having him walk with me was a nice change of pace.
A few people waved at us, which was pretty normal. I made it a point to wave back a bit more enthusiastically than usual to make up for Nathan. A few people looked a little surprised when they figured out who I was waving to, but that made sense. The hermit had finally come out of his hole.
It took a while before finally Nathan spoke up again. “I’ve been going over some designs for upgrades to the standard trooper armor that were sent me. I think they look good, but I was curious as to your thoughts of what you’ve seen of what the Dragon’s Teeth currently use.”
“It’s good,” I said with a nod. “But very little in the way of mobility. The rapid response suits and recon suits have flight, while the standard armor doesn’t, which is fine, you know? But the standard stuff is heavy. The Dragon’s Teeth tend to be posted to villages and cities that have a high strategic value, though.
“They aren’t just guards at a wall. They tend to act as a police force, too. The heavy metal is offset by the strength augmentation, but they’re still focused on durability and not maneuverability. I mean, not like in a fight, you know? I mean…”
I frowned, fighting for the words. “They’re exhausting to run in, from what I’m told. They’re also really hard on the knees and back. But that’s better than some of the older designs. Back at school, I talked to some of the instructors that trained the officer cadets there. They told stories about how people used to grab something to use as a heavy melee weapon when things went bad in a fight, and would end up breaking something from the forces that would transfer to their body upon impact.
“The limiters on strength for active use helped with that, but still. There’s always going to be some force transferred back to the user, some strain put on the body. Even with all their training on how to use the armor, it’s still mass produced, so it’s not going to fit them perfectly. That’s going to lead to injuries and the like. A lot of those injuries come from running, where the impact systems can’t kick in. They don’t immediately happen, but they pop up on occasion.
“That’s what I think is probably the hardest part about them, and what Defiant and Dragon should probably focus on.”
Nathan gave me a look. “I was expecting a more… I don’t know, tactical analysis.”
I laughed a bit. “That is a tactical analysis. It takes a year to train a trooper. That’s a huge investment of both time and resources. Each time that you have to retire a suited trooper due to their knees and back making it impossible to do their jobs, that means that you’ve lost that investment. And no matter how much good they did, that’s still a loss of potential.”
He nodded slowly, running a hand over his facial hair. “Right. It means that they can’t field as many troops in the long run.”
I nodded eagerly. “Exactly. I know that you can’t tell if the armor will help with that or not, but maybe include some notes about it to Defiant? I’m pretty sure the Dragon’s Teeth just view it as part of the job and haven’t mentioned anything, but I’ve heard them complain.” The patrol team that had met us in Twain had mentioned that they were happy to use their particular model of armor for that reason.
“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll include some notes.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “You’d do well with them. I’m surprised that you haven’t joined up.”
I smiled happily. “Wardens or nothing.” And I was fully in the nothing category.
Nathan frowned a little, but otherwise said nothing. We made it another block before he spoke back up. “So what am I helping you carry?”
“Oh, not much.” I glanced at him. “I’ll let you choose. A piece of jewelry, or a pretty dress?”
“Well,” I said, drawing the word out. “Christmas is coming-”
“We don’t celebrate that,” he interrupted.
“I know.” Which I didn’t like. “But here’s the thing. Taylor? Her clothes are pretty plain. She doesn’t wear any jewelry. And that’s fine, if it’s by choice. But I don’t think you’ve ever given her anything, am I right?”
His flat stare and silence spoke volumes.
“Exactly. Now, here’s the thing. Girls? They like to feel pretty. They like to know that they’re beautiful. And sometimes, it takes somebody giving them something pretty to help them feel that way. It’s a simple rule, pretty girls deserve pretty things. All girls are pretty, maybe not in physical form, but some part of them is pretty or beautiful. Therefore, all girls deserve pretty things.
“Since I don’t know when your birthdays are, Christmas it is. And it’ll mean infinitely more coming from you than it would coming from me. I’m the outsider living in your home. You’re the guy who’s never given her a dress or a piece of jewelry. So, I’m taking you to get her something nice.”
Nathan stopped in his tracks, sighing softly. “Jordan…”
I whipped around, fixing him with a hard stare and pointing into his face. “No. No arguments, old man, no matter how good you think they are. You don’t do the gift thing, that’s fine. I get that. Let this be the one time that it does happen, though. You get her a gift, you receive the gift of making Taylor feel pretty, and get to satisfy that nagging urge to make sure that everyone around me has a merry Christmas.”
His eyes went wide as I leaned in close, stressing my words to him. “Pretty girls. Pretty things. And there’s some part of Taylor that you think is beautiful, isn’t there?” I still wasn’t sure about their relationship. I was erring on the side of father and daughter, everything that I’d seen pointed in that direction, and fathers always thought their daughters were beautiful.
There was a long moment of silence before he sagged, defeated. “Alright. Alright.” He sighed, rolling his eyes skyward. “If she were here, I’d probably be getting it from both sides, anyway.”
I raised my finger in confusion. “I’m pretty sure that if she were here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. I mean, it’s kinda the reason why I pulled you away like this.”
“You know what I mean.” He looked at me with a tired expression. “I didn’t bring any money.”
“I’ll cover it.”
He pressed his lips together for a moment. “I don’t speak the language.”
I grinned a little. “The jeweler speaks English.”
He flung his hands up into the air. “Well, then, you’d better be ready to help me pick something about, because what I know about jewelry could fill a thimble!”
That made me laugh. “I can do that, yeah.”
I could never sleep on Christmas. Not because I was excited to get presents or anything. No, back at the Orphanage I’d been too busy to sleep. It was a busy time of the year for folks, and making it special for the other orphans was hard work. There was always something to be done before they started coming out of their rooms, and I’d thrown myself headlong into making Christmas morning as special as possible.
Even in Burlington, I’d kept myself busy all night long, setting up decorations and making sure that everyone would be mesmerized when they woke up. Frosting windows, making popcorn in my room and stringing it up, filling up stocking with whatever baubles I’d picked up.
Not that we opened all of our presents that morning. Chris’ original family had opened presents on Christmas Eve, so out of respect we opened half of them that night, but kept the extra special ones for that morning. It wasn’t much, but it was the least that we could do.
Still, since I couldn’t sleep, I’d gone to midnight mass with some of the locals despite it not being my thing, then stayed in my room. At first, I’d wrapped the necklace that I’d made for Sarah, then the precious metals and physical samples from powers that I’d special ordered for Chris. I didn’t know when I’d see them again, if ever, but it was something to do. Unfortunately, it hadn’t lasted nearly long enough.
Instead, almost all of my night had been spent doing katas, with only fifteen minutes spent reading. Katas and focusing on my form was easier. At some point, I’d switched to what exercising I could to silently.
The limits to my body had been falling away, I found. Even after two hours of exercising, the sweat pouring off my body, I was still able to keep going. As quickly as my arms began to feel wobbly, by the time that I got done working my core, they’d be back to almost full strength. It was incredible. But, unfortunately, I was reaching the limits of what I could do.
The sun was peeking over the horizon, though. Normally, Taylor or Nathan would be knocking on my door to let me know that breakfast was ready. They were probably sleeping in. Just because they didn’t celebrate Christmas didn’t mean that they weren’t delayed in their jobs from it.
Nowhere would be open today, so Taylor couldn’t do her thing. And if Nathan had sent in his stuff, Defiant and Dragon were probably celebrating Christmas, so he wouldn’t have anything to do. Sleeping in was probably the better option. And since they were probably still asleep, and since I had no idea when they’d be awake, I couldn’t even start breakfast for them.
I sighed softly before looking at the door. It was light out, so I might as well go outside and enjoy some extra freedom of movement. I grabbed my kettlebell and made my way out of my room, down the stairs, and through the house. Somehow, I made it out the back door and onto the lawn before I recognized that anything was different.
We’d compacted the snow through our sparring and my exercising until it was almost like cement, but now it was gone. Grass was visible on the ground, though it wouldn’t be growing while this cold. Even more odd was the building in front of me. It wasn’t nearly as big as the house, but also far too large to be a shed. Metal walls, unlike most of the buildings around here. That… hadn’t been there yesterday.
No windows at all, except for the ones built into the door. Taped to the other side of the door, though, was an envelope. Slowly, I approached until I could see “Tobias” printed on it. Strange. With growing trepidation, I opened the door.
The floor and walls of the building were blue and plastic-like. The only furniture was a small table, upon which sat a large electric heater that was going full blast.
I pulled the envelope free and turned it over in my hands. Too light to be a card. I ripped it open and pulled out the single piece of paper, opening it to reveal the poorly-written script.
“What do you think?” a voice asked behind me, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I spun around to find Nathan standing there, a wry grin on his face.
I took several breaths, a hand going over my heart. That made him laugh, a deep, rich sound. When I finally regained my wits, I looked around slowly. “I, uh… I thought you didn’t…”
“You forced my hand,” he said, stepping into the building and closing the door. It was still cool enough inside that we could see our breath. “When you forced me to get something for her, I decided that I had to get something for you.”
I glanced around, blinking. “Uh… Is this your way of kicking me out of the house?”
For a moment, he looked hurt. I immediately regretted my joke. I didn’t have time to apologize before he was speaking, though.
“Tempting, but I like your cooking more than hers.” He grinned enough to show his teeth. “Exercising on that snow wasn’t exactly the best thing, especially not while sparring. You mentioned once that having padding would be easier for the both of us, so I thought…” He let his words trail off, looking around the building awkwardly.
A slow grin came to my face. “You built a training center for the two of us. Overnight. Without me hearing you work.”
“I’m glad your window faces the east,” he said with a chuckle. “It wasn’t easy doing it that quietly, but yeah. It’s all, uh, it’s all prefab stuff, so it was pretty easy to put together. We had to put paper over the window so that we could mount the padding. It should work as insulation for us, so we don’t freeze when we come in, but…”
He shrugged, losing his ability to speak again.
I gripped my arm, feeling my eyes start to sting. I never wanted this. I never cared about getting gifts, only accepting them because otherwise people might feel bad. I never wanted either one of them to go out of their way for me. But here he’d gone, working all through the night on a present like this.
“Thanks, old man.”
He chuckled awkwardly, glancing around. “So, uh… Care to see how good of a job we did at putting it together? Or did you just want to swing that weight around for a bit?”
I looked down at the kettlebell in my hand before hurrying over to set it in the corner. “To be honest? There’s nothing more that I’d like in the world.”
Anything would have been closer to the truth than that statement.