The secret to soldering is to not actually touch what you’re soldering. It didn’t matter if you were working high tech or low tech, there was always the possibility of putting too much heat into the transistor, resistor, or microchip if you placed the iron directly against the prongs. Burning out what you were trying to install was a pretty head-slappingly stupid deal, after all. Instead, you had to carefully drip the solder onto it.
I’d done some soldering back at school, but not a lot. Skills grew rusty if you didn’t use them, and I was bitterly aware of how rusty mine had gotten. If I had skills to start with, I wasn’t sure. My only relief from hovering over with a soldering iron was when I’d flip the board back over and use the multimeter to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake. I had, once or twice, burning something out, but for the most part, I was good.
As I felt a hand against my back, I had to squint as I turned around. I couldn’t make out the face, a common problem, but I could tell by the body that it was Taylor. “Hey,” I said, a tired smile on my face.
“I figured that I’d find you here,” she mused. “Tilt your head back, I’ve got eyedrops.”
I obeyed, despite the protests of my back and neck. Too much time sitting hunched over this board.
“You don’t have to do this,” she mused, though her tone of voice said that she knew how this conversation was going to go. I felt her fingers on my face a moment before she pulled my eyelid open.
“Yeah I do,” I said softly.
“It’s Saturday, and you’ve been here for twelve hours.” The cool liquid hit my eye, and as much as it felt odd, it did make my eye feel so much better.
“If this weight sensor isn’t done by Monday, it’s going to slow assembly down, and we’re already way behind schedule.” Each component of the satellites had to be precise, and each stage of the assembly had to be carefully measured. We were still doing our first run, so things would speed up incredibly once we worked the kinks out.
Unfortunately, one of the sensors we used to see if things were right was on the fritz, as we’d discovered on Friday morning’s calibration cycle. It had taken us most of the day to narrow the problem down to one circuit board, print another one, and make sure we had all the necessary parts to install on it.
Taylor got the drops in my other eye, and I stayed in place for a few moments to let the liquid do its thing. After a few minutes, I finally sat upright, blinking as I turned back to look at her. She was still fuzzy, but I could make her out better.
“You’re going to make yourself blind, doing all of these connections in one go.”
I flashed her a chipper smile. “Fortunately, I’ve got someone who brought me eyedrops.”
“Tobias,” she said warningly.
“Taylor,” I said chipperly.
She sighed softly, shaking her head. “What did you have for lunch?”
“Oh, is it lunchtime already?” That would explain the headache.
“You missed dinner!”
That would really explain the headache.
Taylor marched over to another table and retrieved a large container, bringing it back and thrusting it into my hands. Fried rice; simple, but filling. I dug in without the slightest hesitation — if I argued, it would only upset her more.
“You shouldn’t skip meals,” she said at last, in a much quieter tone. “It’s not healthy, not with how you normally eat.”
I flashed her an apologetic smile as I chewed. Don’t talk while you have a large shovel load of food in your face.
Taylor tilted her head to the side, her hair covering one eye. There was something oddly familiar about that, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Tobias… You’re a good worker, but how many times have we had to drag you away from what you were doing because it was time to clock out?”
I swallowed. “I don’t count.”
“Exactly.” She sighed softly, pressing her lips together. After a moment, she nodded. “Listen, there’s something that I’ve, we’ve been meaning to talk to you about. I was hoping that we could do that today.”
I glanced at my watch. I knew that it wasn’t the same one that we’d picked up in Twain, it didn’t have the scratches on the glass from St. Louis, but someone had gone through a lot of trouble to find the exact make and model after Agamemnon.
“It’s too late for that now, isn’t it?” I felt a little guilty over that.
“Even if I drag you home right now, you haven’t done any of your exercises today. You’ll probably be itching to do those. After that, you’ll probably collapse on your bed. And if I try and wrangle you into it before you exercise… Your mind will be on that instead of what I want to talk to you about.
“Can I at least steal you tomorrow?”
I frowned a little. Plans. “I was planning on doing a walk outside of the city walls again tomorrow.”
She frowned a little. “Shooting again?”
I nodded. There wasn’t a proper shooting range here in the city, so I had to go outside the walls to make sure that I kept at least a little bit of sharpness to me. I’d been slacking, though — there was some horrible snow this year, but now that Monday was the first day of spring, I should be able to not have to worry about the horrible drifts.
“You usually spend four hours out there, then take a brief nap. Alright, after you get your nap in, we’ll have dinner and talk then.”
That was surprising. Normally, breakfast was the only meal that we all had together. Whatever they wanted to talk to me about, it must be important. “Am I in trouble?”
That made Taylor smile. “No more than you have been since you came to us. No, we wanted to talk to you about the future.”
“Ah. You don’t like talking about that, do you?”
I shrugged a little. “I try not to think about it.” And, save for some plans, I’d done a very good job of it. In the past months, I’d done a great job of not thinking about the fact that I was a wanted man. It was so easy, so comfortable to settle in like this, that I almost didn’t have to try.
Taylor smiled. “Well, don’t worry. It’s nothing bad. I just wanted to get it out of the way before spring was officially here.”
“Cool,” I said, feeling a bit of guilt as I dug back into my food. After I swallowed, though, I went on a different topic. “How are we doing on candles?”
That made Taylor grin a little. “Writing another letter, huh? We have envelopes, you know.”
I chuckled softly. I’d written a few letters to people here in town; I dimly recalled that someone at some point recently had demanded that I worked on my penmanship. Letters seemed the right way to go about it without feeling wasteful. I tended to use wax seals on it, which demanded a candle for the wax.
I’d had to make a stamp for it myself, but still. That was good casting practice.
“Yeah, I know. It just… doesn’t feel right, though. It feels lazy. No, lazy isn’t the right word, but I dunno how to describe it.”
She smiled patiently. “That’s fine, Tobias. You’re fine. I’ll make sure there’s one in your room when you get home.”
I perked up. “So, you’re going to let me finish?”
“As if I could stop you. You’re almost done, anyway. After you eat, I’ll let you get back to it.”
It was almost eleven by the time that I slipped inside the house, careful to keep it quiet. Taylor wasn’t in her study; I couldn’t see anything but a blinking blue light shining from underneath the door as I passed it. She was probably in the basement with Nathan. Good, I wasn’t sure if I could bare to see either of them right now.
I made my way upstairs and into my room before stripping out of my jacket. After that came a heavy sigh as I looked at my pack. I didn’t want to do this. Even as I pulled it open, it almost hurt. Like a physical pain deep in my chest.
My writing kit. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. What surprised me, though, was the bundle that was packed in next to it. Something wrapped up in soft, thin leather. Nothing that I recognized, and he recognized everything in his pack. Gauging by how it was beaten up, it had been there for quite some time, too.
Ignore it, I had more important things to do. I pulled out my writing kit and made my way to his desk in the corner, adjusting it so I could stand as I worked. After a moment’s hesitation, I lit the match for the candle.
All that done, I grabbed the stationary on the desk and started writing. I could have done it faster on the computer and print it out, or maybe leave it on the house’s network for them to find, but this felt… right. You had to put thought and effort into a handwritten note. And this was worth the effort.
My dearest friends,
I want you to know that staying with you has been absolutely wonderful. When I first arrived in the city, I was at the lowest point in my life. Out of my element, scared out of my wits, and hurting in more ways than one.
Instead of leaving me to feel alone and afraid, you accepted me into your home. You helped me to get a job, to feel useful. To work on a project that will help turn humanity back to the place that it once had been.
Taylor, you have been a great source of comfort. You don’t seem to have an interest in it, but I’d like to say that you would make a wonderful mother some day. I don’t know my own mother, but if she was half the woman that you are, then I would be proud to have come from her.
Dragon made the right choice for you to be her face in her endeavors. Her will, guided by your patient hand, might bring all the earths back to the technological age that had been before Scion’s assault.
Nathan. No matter what else you might believe, you are a good man. I know that your heart carries a great deal of pain, but you can’t let it rule you. You’ve been nothing but wonderful with me, humoring my excitement over training, joining me in it. Yes, you have a brutality within you, but you have so much more.
You can learn a lot by sparring with someone. About yourself, and about them. Except for when we agreed to push it, that hitting the ground wouldn’t be a sign to stop, you would always stop yourself the second that I would hit the floor. Your body spoke to me in those moments — your stance said that you were worried that you’d hurt me, that you wanted to immediately rush up to me and make sure that I was well.
Your body also said that you were holding back, afraid to enter my personal space uninvited like that. You were caught in that conflict, even as you were sure that I was fine. Even as you were waiting for me to get up and get back into it. You have a call to combat, but you can control it expertly.
Nathan, no matter what else you might believe, know that I view you as a great man. I’ve met Chevalier and Legend, and fought them. Know that I’m telling the absolute truth when I say that I hold you in as high of regard as I do them.
I’m begging you, please don’t hide yourself from others forever. People deserve your company, your wisdom and guidance. And you need others in order to heal the wounds you carry in your heart. Our time together has shown me a great man, and the world deserves to know him as I’ve come to.
By the time that you read this, I’ll be gone. We all knew that my time with you would come to an end eventually. I would say that it would be inevitable, that mercenaries always move on. That would be a lie, and you two deserve the truth.
I’m Jordan. My sister and I are the Survivors of St. Louis. I’m the Hero of Agamemnon. And as the newspapers have taken to calling me, the Butcher of New Fairfax. Even without all the facts, they have taken the fact that I am wanted for questioning and taken it to mean that I am wanted.
I’m sorry for deceiving you as to who I am. I can’t even begin to explain why I ran, why I had to spend the winter in secret. All that I can say is that I’ve been spending this winter wracked with guilt.
Underneath my bed, you’ll find that I left the money that I made. Everything except what I spent on food, clothes and Christmas is yours. I know that I’ve been paying rent, but I feel that I owe you that money for the deception that I’ve made you suffer.
Please inform the Dragon’s Teeth about everything that I’ve told you, and the time that we’ve spent together. Please have them tell the Wardens. I don’t want you to be charged with hiding a wanted man.
I’m sorry for the trouble that I’ve caused you, especially after the two of you have been so wonderful to me. I am blessed to have had two loving families. Please take care of yourselves.
I nodded as I set the pen to the side. It felt cheesy, but I couldn’t think of a better way to write it. My hands felt like lead as I folded the letter in another piece of paper, as I heated the wax.
I put a large glob on the left side and picked up one of the stamps. A quick lick, a quick press, and it was sealed with a crude T. Another glob on the right, another lick, and the other stamp was pressed, leaving a much more stylized J. A gift from Chris.
I blew out the candle and shut off the lights. I very seriously doubted that I’d be able to get any sleep at all, but I was out within minutes.
“Tobias,” the man said, giving me a wide smile.
“Officer.” I didn’t know the man’s name, but I’d seen him a few times now.
“I’m only a Sergeant, not a Lieutenant,” the man groused.
“I’ll try and remember that,” I lied. “I thought I’d drop by and let the Dragon’s Teeth know that I was going to do some target practice outside of the city today.”
The trooper nodded, turning to his computer. I was lucky that I was so far away from North America. My first few times that I’d dealt with the local Dragon’s Teeth, I’d been sweating bullets. I’d been sure that they were going to recognize me, to raid the house to capture me.
It had taken me a while to realize that, while they had an interest in global events, the politics and problems of my homeland were very far away. They had their own problems, their own massive lists of people to keep an eye out for. Keeping an eye out for a random guy from North America probably wasn’t even a byline in a daily mission briefing.
If I’d known nothing of the people and major problems that Europe and Scandinavia had to face before arriving here, especially with how close of attention I paid to parahuman news and events, how could they be expected to do the same with North America?
“Okay,” the trooper said finally. “How long are you planning on being out?”
I frowned a little. “I’m going to do some hardcore training on top of my shooting, so… Let’s go until three.”
He made some keystrokes. “And how many rounds are you planning on firing?”
I shrugged. “Two, maybe three hundred total? That would be between both pistol and rifle.”
More keystrokes. “It says that your rifle is a .308 bolt action, and your pistol is a .45 semi-automatic. Is that still correct?”
“Yes, sir. A Colt 1911.”
“And which direction were you planning on going?”
“Northeast, maybe kilometers, tops. I have a makeshift shooting range set up there, pointing away from the road.”
“I see.” He typed on the keyboard a little more before frowning. After a moment, he looked up at me. “I don’t have anyone to spare today, but the next time you go out, could you let us know a few days in advance? We’d like to have someone go with you to take a look at this shooting range and make sure it’s safe.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, nodding. “I can totally understand that. Just because I say it’s safe doesn’t mean that you know it’s safe.”
The trooper smiled warmly at me. “Thank you. And thank you for letting us know. We might have a drone flying later, so it’s good to know who all will be out and when.”
But he wasn’t telling me that there was any danger. It was probably something simple, like a patrol to see if there were wildlings in the area or something. Or maybe just a survey to see if anything had changed during the winter — trees down in critical areas or something.
I gave the trooper a wave before heading out. Checking in with them put me at danger, but also made me seem like a safe citizen. If I made sure that they knew I was out there, and armed, then if something happened I looked a lot more favorable to them.
Checking out with the guards at the gate was a far simpler process, but I still had to sign my name to be let out. As it got warmer, the chances of wildling attacks rose. Even if I had all my gear on me, I was still saying that they weren’t responsible if something happened. Once they let me through, though, I began to hurry.
To them, it would have just been me jogging, as usual. No big deal. To me, though, I wanted to put distance between me and the city. Holbæk may have been kind to me, but it hurt to go like this. Like a thief in the night, even though the morning light was peeking over the horizon.
I got a good ways into the woods, deep enough that I didn’t have to worry about being seen, before I finally found a clearing big enough. Good. I didn’t want to hurt any of the trees. With a heavy sigh, I set the coordinates on the teleporter and hit the button.
Almost instantly, I was in another set of woods. What once had been the morning’s light was now the dead of night. Right, time zones. That made things trickier. No matter, there was work to be done. I took a few paces, watching the numbers on the teleporter change, before I started off in the right direction.
Some people called them a hive. Others a chapel. The official name for it was study. The building was outside the city walls, but that didn’t make it any less fortified than those walls. Parahuman or wildling could throw themselves at the thick stone, and most of them would bounce off. Even more with the thin layer of Tinker-made material invisibly covered the stone.
The doors, though, would be unlocked. They always were, and there was always someone there to meet whomever showed up.
As I slipped inside, I was once again amazed by the murals and stained glass windows that initially greeted someone, even if they were softly lit by dim bulbs at this time of night. The murals changed regularly; they were accepting of artists doing new ones, so long as certain rules were obeyed.
I could still recount the stories for all of them far too well, just by a glance.
The battle with Lung, Sundancer being horrified as the blade struck down. Mannequin, the chain connected to his head pulled long, locked into battle. I knew to look, and saw a figure with a large stone ready to strike downwards in the background. That scene was popular, and done many times.
Dark, humanoid clouds. A line of teenagers, one in the center with wings. People all surrounding a young woman with only one arm, a glow in their eyes. So many more than that, too. Scenes of life, painted on the walls or displayed through colored pieces of glass.
Once upon a time, the Cultists were just a group of people who had collected to ask two important questions: Why? How? Oh, the question of how Khepri had forced them to fight Scion was easy, with her powers. But how had a person become Khepri? What was the path? Why had she become oh so vital to saving humanity from that alien monster?
They sought out those who had known Taylor, had known Skitter, and had known Weaver. They wanted answers, they wanted to understand what had caused all of this. They got stories, sometimes conflicting. They compiled as much information as they could.
Somewhere along the line, people started to call the Cultists. The name varied; Cultists of Taylor, Cultists of Skitter, of Weaver, of Khepri. They still denied it to this day; they didn’t deify her, they claimed. They just wanted to understand, they said. Many of them were members of their own religions. It didn’t stop people, and to this day, Cultists were the easiest thing to call them. It didn’t help that the most devoted wore robes or a pendent to denote their membership, so that people could enter discussion with them. Or so they claimed.
They reviewed her life, debating what was known. Sometimes fighting over it. They saw parables in her life that they could apply to themselves. Taylor had been in Brockton Bay after the Endbringer Leviathan had all but destroyed the city, carving out a safe haven for civilians there. If she could do that, then they could survive the apocalypse.
There were those who welcomed them; the parahumans tended to be fearsome protectors of the innocent. Emphasis on the fearsome. Many were also teachers; just as they were students of Taylor’s life, they could educate others. Often, they claimed, to prevent others from suffering the same fate as her.
There were those who tried to drive them away. New Brockton had been a haven for them once, but eventually Tattletale, Taylor’s old teammate, had grown to despise them. They weren’t kicked out of the city, but they sure weren’t welcome there.
Still others had founded communities of their own, often under the watchful gaze of others. Those places, so I’d heard, were good for the untriggered people there. For those who might prey on them, though, it was a living hell that was best avoided at all costs.
It was only natural that they’d convene here. It was, after all, effectively a continuation of something Skitter had started. And they were rather faithful about helping out. In the early days, it might have all fallen apart without their support.
As I stepped through the hallway, into the main study and library, I was struck by a sense of nostalgia. It had been years since I’d stepped foot in here. There was a great deal of information on Armsmaster, on Defiant. He’d played a huge role in Taylor’s life. It was only natural that I’d spend too much time in this study, reading whatever was written about him.
I heard a quiet voice whisper “Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” I looked to the source, a robed woman whose eyes seemed about ready to pop out of her skull.
A man placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. “It’s alright.” He looked up to me. I couldn’t make him out in this light. “Isn’t it, Jordan?”
“Yeah,” I said softly, lowering my head. “Yeah, I’m not here to start anything. I was just hoping that I could keep my weapons here, and maybe borrow a robe.”
The man paused for a moment, took a breath as if to say something, then paused again. “I’m sorry, excuse me?”
I ran a hand over my face. I hadn’t shaved as good as I’d thought, there were a few rough spots. “I, uh… I kinda wanted…” I hadn’t really put much thought into it, to be honest. I was moving by instinct here. But how best to explain where my instinct was driving me?
Right. “After her identity was outed at the school, after her escape, Taylor went to visit her mother’s grave.”
The man stepped forward into the light, but I still couldn’t identify him. Apparently, he knew me. “You never were big on the study of Taylor’s life. You only cared where it intersected with Defiant’s.”
I looked away, offering a slight shrug. “It was right after the Defiant and Dragon cornered her at the school, so it’s only natural that I paid attention to the fallout. And, uh, I guess that I picked up a bit extra along the way.”
“So I see,” he mused.
Silence echoed in the room, only making me more uncomfortable. I trembled with nervous energy. What more could I say to convince him? I wasn’t sure. All that I could do was stand there.
“Quinn,” he said at last. “Please go up to my quarters and get one of my robes. They should be big enough for him.”
“Paul?” the woman asked hesitantly. Paul… Nope, still not ringing any bells, and that only made me feel more of a prick.
“It’s alright,” he said in a warm tone. “Trust me. You’ll find us in Study C.”
She didn’t look happy as she rose. I could only follow her until she disappeared behind a bookshelf. It that hall would lead to the stairs at the rear, which would itself lead up to where the Cultists lived.
Paul gestured, and I followed his lead into one of the small side room for more private studies. He hit the light switch, making me wince — the lights here were much brighter than in the main study. Immediately, I moved to the table and gingerly laid my halberd on it. There were some scars on the table, no doubt from a passionate debate, but I didn’t want to add to them.
“I had a feeling you’d come here eventually,” he said. “But not to us. And definitely not this late. Do you know what time it is?”
I glanced at my watch, which said it was almost 8:30. Right, time zones. “Uh, late?”
“That depends,” Paul said slowly. “Is 2:30 in the morning late or early for you?”
I winced a little as I laid my rifle on the table. “I’m gonna wake people up.”
“You will.” He didn’t make it sound accusing, though. More… acceptance of the fact. “But there are worse things in life.”
I laid my pistol on the table, then worked to get my pack off. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” he admitted. “The Wardens are saying that you’re just wanted for questioning, but folks are taking that to mean that you’re wanted on over two thousand counts of murder. The papers aren’t helping that.”
As I set the pack on the table, I glanced to him. “And you?”
He shrugged. “I’ve studied the papers from the time of Taylor, and then the first-hand accounts. I know that the media sometimes exaggerates things, so I’m just going by the facts. You’re wanted for questioning.” He paused. “But I wouldn’t mind knowing the truth as you see it.”
“A lot of people would,” I muttered as I set my belt down. “Sorry, but I don’t feel like answering.” There wasn’t a good reason why I felt like that. Instinct pulled at me again.
But Paul nodded, even as the woman, Quinn, slipped inside and carefully handed me the robe.
“That’s fine,” he said slowly. “There’s lots of times where your reasons are your own, and any words would only muddle the situation worse.” As soon as the robes were pulled over my head, though, his hand was on my shoulder, and his eyes were meeting mine. “But. If you’ve learned any lessons about Taylor, then please remember the important ones.
“Your friends are your strength, even when you have to abandon them. The longer you run, the heavier it weighs on your heart. Sometimes, the simplest of actions can wound us the greatest.”
I smiled sadly at him, nodding. “When cornered, people can move in dangerously unpredictable ways.”
He frowned thoughtfully for a moment before nodding. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me cornering you.” He lifted the hood, adjusting it so it helped block my features. “Neither Quinn or myself will give you away. But I’d suggest that you don’t take too long. I can’t say the same for the others, once they start waking up.”
Again, I flashed him a sad smile. “Thank you.”
“De nada,” he said. “But there is one thing that I am going to request in exchange.” I gave him a questioning look, and I could barely make out a smile from how the hood was hanging. “Visit the monument first. Remind yourself of everything that comes with it.”
I nodded. “I will.”
Paul stepped away and motioned, allowing me the chance to move past both him and Quinn. Instead of using the front doors, I headed for the back. More than once, I’d slipped in through the storage room as a kid, eager to find more information on Defiant. I knew the route quite well.
As I stepped back out into the cool air, though, I knew that I wouldn’t be sneaking back in the same route as back then. Instead, I went straight for the wall, and up to the man-sized door there, knocking on it.
A guard’s face appeared. “It’s a bit late,” she said, eyeing me through the grate.
“Yes,” I said softly. “But aid is requested, and I’m here to offer it.” I paused. “Don’t worry. I don’t want any trouble.” Somehow, I screwed up saying the word trouble. Quickly, I added to it. “If they grow hostile, I’ll leave immediately.”
The guard honestly didn’t seem to care. As she unbolted the heavy door and opened it with a creak, I got the feeling that I could have said I was going for a booty call and she wouldn’t have batted an eye.
I walked purposefully through, though I had to put effort into it. Just stepping back into these walls felt oppressive, like the very air was crushing me. There was a part of me that wanted to cry. I buried that deep, something that was surprisingly easy right now.
Instead of breaking down, I passed through the streets, heading straight for the monument. It was out of my way, but I’d made a promise. I wanted to keep at least one, dang it.
When I arrived, I approached the polished brass carefully. As a kid, they’d always yelled at all of us to keep off of it. That didn’t stop anyone. In the end, they’d reinforced it, made it stronger, so that nobody could damage it.
I reached out, my hand rubbing one of the mandibles. Four years after Gold Morning, a group of early Cultists had made their way out to the ruins of Brockton Bay to find it. It had been lost when Brockton had been destroyed, but they said they’d felt it necessary.
“Hello Atlas,” I whispered. “It’s been a while.”
Atlas had been made by Amy Dalton, AKA Panacea, specifically for Skitter during the fight against the Slaughterhouse Nine. When Taylor had turned herself into the Protectorate back in the day, she’d left Atlas behind. The overly large beetle, big enough for her to ride, had needed her to survive, to move, to eat. Without her, it had died.
So they’d bronzed it. They said it seemed fitting. Strange how kids now clamored all over it. It didn’t feel right, somehow.
I looked over to a spot of grass. Unlike where I had recently come from, they’d had a warmer spell, with temperatures above freezing for long enough that all the snow had melted.
I knew that patch well. Sarah, Chris and I had napped there many times. Sometimes, we didn’t even bring a blanket. Chris had once said sunbeam naps were the best naps. Most people thought it was strange that kids seven to ten would nap like that when others would refuse naps, but we weren’t exactly average. Few people were, really.
The memory only made the pressure in my chest that much worse. Time to move on. Get this over with. Time to make myself forget the pressure through action.
Back the way that I’d come, through the town proper, and down side streets. I knew my destination well. It was a simple apartment building. Nothing fancy. I took the stairs quietly, not even bothering to look at the numbers on the door. Since the hall was lit by two naked but dim bulbs, one on each end, it wasn’t like I could see half of the numbers anyway.
I paused, though, when I reached my destination. I reached out my fist, then hesitated. Probably sleeping. Might get angry, but I doubted it. Disappointed, most likely. There’d still be stern words. It would be better if I turned and walked away.
Instead, my hand banged on the door loudly. More than I’d wanted.
It took a moment, but I could hear shuffling feet on the other side of the door. Not in bed? I didn’t have time to think about it before it was unlocked and opened. I quickly pulled the hood away from my face.
“Yeah?” he asked, a little blearily.
“Hi Greg,” I said softly.
He looked at my face a little more closely, running a hand over his mouth. “Thought that beer tasted funny.”
I frowned a little. “I thought you quit drinking.”
Greg let out a soft sigh. “No, hallucinations don’t give me grief like that. C’mon in, Jordan.”
As he walked in, I slipped inside, closing the door behind me. The interior was lit by a flatscreen TV, one of the presents we’d sent him from St. Louis. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Passed out playing a game,” he said offhandedly, moving to the couch where his pants were. I hadn’t given any thought to him being in boxers, given the time of night. “And it wasn’t that deep of a sleep. Besides, I thought you were someone else.”
“Ah,” I said softly. “Yeah, in your letter, it said something about you hooking up.”
He chuckled softly. “Yeah. It’s a complicated relationship, but…” He shrugged before stepping into them. “It’s a relationship.”
“Well, you’re looking good.” When he’d first started training me, he’d gotten a bit of a pot belly to him. Here he was now, in his late 30s, looking fit as a horse.
“Still taking martial arts classes. Heck, now I’ve officially a teacher.” He chuckled softly. “I never thought I’d see the day. Teaching kids. Who would have thought it?”
I smiled a little. “You did a good job of teaching me.”
He glanced to me. “When I wasn’t destroying you.”
I winced, looking at the TV. There were blocky characters on it, with a big [PAUSE] in the middle of the screen.
“How’s your knee?”
I looked back at him, blinking. “Good. Fit as a fiddle, actually. The doc really fixed me up, took care of everything while she was at it.”
“Good,” Greg said, nodding slowly. “That’s at least one weight off my shoulders.”
He sighed softly, looking like he wanted to flop onto the couch, but refraining. “Jesus, Jordan. You’re in a mess.”
“Yeah,” I said softly.
“Do you need money?”
“What?” I did a double-take before shaking my head. “No! No, not at all. Money… Money isn’t a problem.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Then why’d you come? Looking for some expert advice?”
“I…” The words caught in my throat. It was an excellent question. “I don’t know. I just… I just left where I’d been staying, and this is where I ended up.”
Greg said nothing for a long moment before nodding. “I get it. I… I get it.” He sighed, running a hand over his face again. He hadn’t shaved today, but it was technically Sunday now. “Want some? Advice, I mean.”
My eyes fell to my feet. “Yeah. Okay.”
There was silence before he replied, and when he did, it was with a quiet authority.
“You’re going to have to make some hard choices. You… You aren’t made to be on the run. And you can’t run forever. If you do run, you’re going to have to play your cards close to your chest. Keep a low profile.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re staring at something that offends your every sensibility, if every part of you screams to act. Don’t. That’s what keeping a low profile means. Because if you draw too much attention to yourself, Valkyrie is going to come after you, and there’s no way you can beat her. Hell, only one person can stand up to her, and even with… With everything, you don’t want to end up with him.
“You’re going to have to fight on occasion, and you’re going to have to run. End threats before they become threats. But always have an out. Leave everyone, and everything if it comes down to it. It’s going to hurt, more than you can possibly know, but if you keep people too close… Well, it hurts more to watch them die.”
He took a deep breath. “Most importantly, ignore everything that I just said.”
I looked up at him, confused. He gave me a warm smile.
“You’re a good kid, better than I was at your age. Hell, infinitely better.” I seriously doubted that. He’d been amazing, and still was. “In a weird way, you remind me of me. So… Don’t walk that path. Find your own. I don’t care what it is, just do it. Even if it means that the Wardens tackle you to the ground, throw you in a hole and swallow the key, you do you.”
I smiled weakly, my mouth trembling. Greg kept up that smile before opening his arms. It took almost nothing for me to cross the room and hug him tightly.
I wasn’t sure how long we stayed like that, but when we separated, he reached out and ruffled my hair. “No matter what, you’ll make me proud. I’m sure of it.”
“Thanks,” I said weakly.
He paused for a long moment before grabbing his shoes and sitting down on the couch. “So, I’m guessing I know where your next stop is.”
I opened my mouth to ask him where that was, but I already knew. I didn’t know-know, but I instinctively knew. “Yeah.”
“Right.” He began pulling on his shoes. When he spoke again, his voice was deeper. “Well, it’ll be easier if you have someone to get you through the doors and draw attention away from you. Even with that hood, folks are going to recognize your face pretty damn quick, so you’ll need help. Then we’ll swing by here. I got something better than cash for you.”
“Don’t mention it.” He made his way to his feet. “And, for the record? It was one beer. Singular. I never gave up drinking completely, I just learned that the bottom of a bottle wasn’t where I wanted to be.
“Now, come on. We’ll avoid the special needs wing.” He paused for a moment. “Also, walk like you know exactly what you’re doing and know exactly where you’re going.”
I nodded as I pulled the hood back up, half covering my face. With a purposeful stride, he lead the way out and towards the biggest building in town. The Orphanage.
I’d spent thirteen years of my life there, found hundreds of ways to get in and out, and now here I was, following someone else’s lead as we walked in the front door.
We entered the antechamber, pausing only so Greg could beat on the inner doors. The person working the desk, a crappy job for a Saturday night, buzzed the two of us in. “What’s up?”
“Got the call,” Greg said, already moving with a quick pace. “One of my students was having nightmares. Brought Player 2 because he might be able to help.”
I nodded a little, but didn’t look at the man behind the desk.
“Wait,” the man called out behind us. “Which student?”
“Heywood,” Greg said before rounding a corner. I glanced to him, and he had a slight grin on his face. He was… enjoying this?
The smile didn’t last long, though, as we hurried through the halls and up stairwells. The building was massive, large enough to hold over a thousand kids and still have room for more. Some of the staff even lived in the building, the ones who might be needed at any moment.
In fact, that was our destination.
When we finally reached the door, Greg was slightly out of breath. Not bad, mind you. I glanced at my watch. It said it was almost 11, so that would put it at about 5 local time. I’d forgotten how spread out the city was, and just how much time it took to navigate the halls.
Greg sucked in a breath, and suddenly it was like he hadn’t been exercising at all. He gave me a sympathetic smile before reaching out and knocking on the door, just as loudly as I’d knocked on his. After a few moments, he did it again, making a stab of guilt run through me.
What if they were already up, though? Would I feel even more guilty then?
After several long moments, though, the door open. The woman before me had dark hair that came down to her shoulders, and had obviously pulled on a shirt and sweatpants hastily. The tired bags and wrinkles around her eyes, though, made me want to apologize and run away.
“Greg?” she asked, as if she hadn’t been sleeping. She was used to being woken up like this. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said with a sad smile. Instead, he jerked a thumb in my direction.
All that I could muster up was a weak smile as I pulled my hood back a little. “Matron.”
Sadness flooded her face as she looked at me. After a brief moment, she shook her head. “Jordan, you’re old enough to call me Charlotte.”