“Forest, we have company!” The Matron looked over to me critically for a moment. “I’ll make us some tea.”
I was about to politely refuse her, but she was already walking away. Great. After a few moments, the Patriarch padded his way out of the bedroom, dressed only in a pair of pants. He seemed tired. And he was too young for the occasional gray hairs in his chest and beard. I didn’t like it.
The two of them made an excellent pair; the Matron was the kind and nurturing one, who occasionally had to be stern. The Patron was the fun one. Neither one of them got to get personal with many of the children, and most of them only saw them during occasional meals. Those rare, unlucky few who got to deal with them on a personal basis, though, loved them.
As soon as he saw me, his eyes lit up. “Jordan!” He crossed the living room like he hadn’t heard about New Fairfax at all, clapping both of my shoulders and gripping them, a broad smile on his face. “Looking good! You don’t even have…” He reached up to rub at my ear.
I couldn’t help but smile a bit. “Yeah. Riley apparently fixed me up pretty good.”
“Pretty good is right.” He grinned at me. “Not a mark on you. Hey, how’s your knee?”
Was everyone going to ask me that? “Everything’s fixed up. It took me a while to get used to not having aches and pains. She even fixed up damage that I didn’t know that I had.”
“That’s great to hear.” He beamed at me. “Sit, sit. You too, Greg.”
I settled onto the couch, with Greg next to me. The Patron settled across from us.
It was funny. I’d wanted so desperately to see them, and now that I was here, in front of them, I had no idea what to say. In fact, I wanted to run away, back to the gates, get my gear and go anywhere but here.
“How are things?” I asked somehow. It was better than nothing.
“Good, good. Our final totals for last year was less than forty, and we had sixty graduate and move away. I really consider that a win in my book.”
“Mine too,” Greg added.
“That’s great,” I said, a smile coming to my face. “Maybe things will slow down a bit finally. The two of you can take some time off soon, hopefully.”
“That would be nice,” he admitted. “I don’t see it quite happening yet, though.” He sighed wistfully before looking back to me. “We were hoping you’d come by after you got out of the hospital.”
That hurt. I didn’t like being reminded of that. “Yeah, I got Aiden’s letter. I just…” I put my elbows on my knees for a moment. “I dunno. Sis was still clinging to me triggering, and it wasn’t fair for her to hold up her life on my account. When I pushed her into the Wardens, I guess I… just stopped thinking for a while. It was easier.”
The Patron nodded slowly. “I can understand that. So you still haven’t triggered?”
I shook my head and he sighed softly.
“I’m sorry, Jordan. Some people, even when put in positions where everything is right, just don’t trigger. I mean, there’s still the possibility that you could, but…”
“It wouldn’t do me any good now, yeah.” That was perhaps the most depressing part of all of this.
The Matron returned with tea for all of us, setting the platter down on the table. There was even some sliced cheese, but I didn’t go for it. “Thank you…” I trailed off, fighting instinct.
“Charlotte,” she reminded me gently.
I sighed softly, shaking my head. “This is gonna be hard for me.” I’d known the both of them as the Matron and Patron all my life, and I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around using their actual names.
Nobody said anything as we sipped our tea. I could imagine what they were thinking, that I needed to grow up. A thousand things ran through my head that they could say, and none of them were complimentary.
It took me by surprise when Matron, or rather Charlotte, spoke up. “Where are you going to go?”
I hesitated before answering. “I don’t know. I… I don’t think that I can handle being alone, though. I might have to find… I don’t know, somewhere.”
“People will recognize you,” she said cautiously.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Greg said, stroking the stubble on his chin. “This isn’t like Taylor, where the PRT cornered her in the lunchroom. Where her picture was plastered on the nightly news all over the place. No, he stands a reasonably good chance.”
We all turned to look at him. With a shrug, he continued.
“First off, you do look a bit different without your scars. Nobody who knows you wouldn’t recognize you, but they did stand out. The pictures of you in the papers… Coming back from St. Louis, you were dirty and desperately needed a haircut. Sarah was also in the forefront of those pictures. That famous Agamemnon pic, again, dirty and defiant, chest puffed out, a very heroic pose.
“You hold yourself differently than in either of those pictures. That’s one thing to your advantage.”
He held up a finger so he could sip his tea. “Sorry. Anyway, the pictures also didn’t do you justice. We have the capability to do good, high resolution pictures in our papers here. Most places don’t. I should know, I collected every article that I could.”
But Greg wasn’t slowing down. “Most places, it gives a good idea to your face, but it’s still pretty fuzzy. That’s if the newspapers even had pictures. A lot of them didn’t.
“But people will remember two important things. Timid, bashful Jordan who stood next to his sister, and heroic Jordan, who stared down Agamemnon. By behaving more normally, taking a more normal stance, and not letting your armor be what they see you in, most people won’t make the connection.
“Plus, it’s been months. Your picture hasn’t been in the paper since October. For how much you’re being demonized, most papers have left your face out of it. Which is good. People’s eye for detail fades over time, and you can easily roll your eyes and grumble about how you always get that if anyone should say anything.
“Keep your head down, don’t draw attention to yourself, and give them something else to focus on, like the robes, and nobody will give you a second glance.”
The Patron chuckled weakly. “If anybody else were saying that, I’d argue. But, you are the expert.”
Greg grinned and lifted his teacup, making sure to hve his pinkie out.
We fell into silence again, but the Matron owned that silence, almost looking like she’d expected it. In a way, I shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d been through it all.
After the Endbringer Leviathan had tried unsuccessfully to sink Brockton Bay, there were a lot of children who had lost their parents. Skitter had taken them in, creating what would be the precursor to the Orphanage. The Matron, simply Charlotte back then, had been one of Skitter’s primary employees, and had taken those orphaned children under her wing.
After Scion had been defeated during Gold Morning, there were even more children who had lost their families. Tattletale had been glad to throw all the support that she could into creating a new, better Orphanage in Earth Gimmel. She’d chosen a place in what would have been New York where there was a naturally occurring spring that produced carbonated water.
Now, they didn’t need Lisa Wilbourn’s support beyond what New Brockton provided. The Matron had a large staff under her to help watch over the kids. But she still tried to help guide them as best she could.
Taylor Hebert’s legacy lived on, in one of the best ways possible.
I felt bad in a way. Kids these days didn’t get to know the Matron the way that I had. Back when there were less adults to help, we’d all gotten to know her better than they would today. She still payed extra attention to the special needs wing, more than she used to, but it just wasn’t the same.
I had to fill the silence. “I got Aiden’s letter. I, uh, I already said that, didn’t I?” That got a weak chuckle out of everyone. “I imagine that there was quite a stir after Agamemnon.”
The Patron, Forrest, chuckled softly. “Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of kids now wanting to learn the halberd now. We, uh… We haven’t so much of suppressed the news since then as much as we haven’t advertised it.”
Charlotte spoke up in sad tones. “Those who find out, we have a large group of people willing to talk with them. We’re trying to get them to think in ways other than just assuming that you’re guilty. We’re trying to make them think that there might be more going on than anyone knows, and to not make judgements until all the facts are in. The younger ones accept more easily than the older ones.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about teenagers or adults.
“I wish I would have listened,” I said softly. “I wish I would have come here instead.”
“We all do,” she replied.
A thought hit me, and I spoke up before I thought about it. “Why are you hiding it?”
Nobody said anything for a long moment. It was Greg who spoke up. “Kids need heroes, Jordan. Someone that they can look up to. Someone who can help them get through the day. Someone to give them hope, or just a distraction. You know that better than anyone.
“If not telling them something lets them cling to that a little bit…” He sighed softly. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t take that away from them.”
I looked at the others. I couldn’t read the Patron’s expression through his beard, and the Matron was looking out the window. Light wasn’t coming yet, but it would be getting close by the time that I got out of here.
“You’re right,” I said. And then, more confidently. “You’re right. I can’t. And I can’t promise them that I’ll be able to do it soon, but… Eventually, I’ll find a way to give them a hero again.”
Charlotte faced me again, her mouth a straight line. “Are you turning yourself in?”
I tried to speak, but found that words failed me. Something almost formed in my head, but got pushed down just as quickly.
“No,” I said at last. “No. At least, not yet.”
It was funny, I expected someone to ask if I’d actually done it or not. The papers had taken to calling me such wonderful terms like The Butcher of New Fairfax. It only stood to figure that someone, no matter how close they were to me, would ask. Not that I was complaining, but it just felt… strange. I couldn’t put my finger on how exactly I was feeling.
“Well,” I said, rising to my feet. “I guess that I-”
“Why did you come?” the Matron asked suddenly.
I blinked at her. Really, I had no good answer. Maybe there wasn’t a good answer, period. Maybe it was just something that I did automatically. But that wasn’t something that you could really explain to someone else.
Instead, I shrugged and said the first thing that came to mind. “I’m not committed to it yet, but I probably won’t be seen for a while. I’m probably going to find a place out of the way, no comms, just maybe the occasional caravan. Lay low for a year or two, then get to work from there.”
That was nicely ambiguous, yes. But it wasn’t an answer.
“I guess that I wanted to come home one last time,” I said, my eyes falling to the floor.
I wasn’t sure how long the silence lasted, but eventually the Matron… Charlotte, I had to remind myself yet again. Charlotte rose to her feet, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Jordan. I’m not going to push you.”
Aw, crap. One of these speeches. I could already see it coming. People always had one of those tones when they gave those speeches.
“I don’t know what happened, and I don’t think that it really matters. I know that, in the end, you’ll do what you think is the right thing. I just want you to know…”
Here it came.
“I’m proud of you,” she stressed. “You’ve grown so much as a person. You’re no longer the little boy running around blindly, expecting to become an expert overnight. You’re not the child who stared out the window. If anyone ever thinks of you as a child, then they obviously don’t know you.”
I was twenty years old for crying out loud!
“You’ve done so much good, so casually, that nobody who knows you will ever think that you’re guilty. It isn’t in your nature, and we all know it. And I know, deep down, that wherever you go, no matter what you do, you’ll always make the world around you better in any way that you can.
“Some heroes fall, some heroes have their reputation tarnished. But some heroes refuse to die, either in body or spirit. And you’re a hero.”
That was an absolute load of it. I’d gotten lucky in Saint Louis, and even luckier against Agamemnon. Luck didn’t make a person a hero.
“Thank you,” I said with a sad smile. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, Charlotte was giving me a hug. For the brief moment that it lasted, I hugged back, until she was pulling away.
At some point, the… Forest had gotten to his feet. As Charlotte pulled away, he took her place, offering me a hand. “I wish Aiden were here. He would have loved to see you.”
It was a nice lie. Aiden would have had my eyes pecked out.
I took his hand, and he pulled me into a hug. It felt good to have that with him, for him to feel comfortable enough to hug me like that. Even if he did pound on my back.
As he let go, though, I found myself at a loss for words yet again. I felt like my brain had just given up completely on speaking coherently for any meaningful length of time. After a few failed attempts, I simply nodded to Greg and moved for the door, pulling the hood of the robes up again.
As soon as we were outside, Greg was pulling ahead. “Brisk walk back to my place, don’t stop for anything, don’t say a word to anyone.”
I nodded and walked next to him. We made our way back out as quickly as we’d entered. It wasn’t until we passed the front desk that anyone said anything to us.
“Hey! You didn’t give me their full name! I need to record that.”
Greg hit the door first, holding it open for me as he called back. “Jablowme.” And like that, we both were outside, moving quickly down the large brick walkway.
“Incidentally,” he said when we were halfway there. “Jabroni is Italian for ‘dumbass.’ You might want to file that away for later.”
Right, whatever. He was always giving me tips like that, out of the blue and related to nothing. I never remembered them.
It took probably another twenty minutes for us to get back to his place. He was lucky; he hadn’t locked the door on his way out, but nobody had broken in. It wasn’t that crime was necessarially high here, but there were a lot of hurting kids who didn’t mind lashing out at adults. Sometimes, they did stupid things.
“Wait here,” he said as he went deeper into the house.
Which left me in the living room, staring at the TV. It hadn’t shut off, but now the pixilated character on the screen was doing some sort of bad dancing. Just four or five images that repeated over and over enough to give the impression of dancing. Weird. And kind of dumb.
After a few minutes, he came back out, carrying a bulging satchel. “I figured that you probably have a full pack. Knowing you, you’ve got all sorts of stuff, and grabbed plenty of rations, but…”
He shrugged a bit, holding out the satchel. “You always did ignore the basics. It’s got plenty of salt, hard tack, a little vinegar, a bottle of mushroom sauce, dried mushroom powder, a bit of powdered egg and milk, portable soup, spices… You know, basics. I, uh, I also threw in a cookbook so you can make mushroom sauce and stuff yourself.”
As soon as I took it from his hands, he was moving to a bookshelf. “I couldn’t fit these two in there, but…”
“Why?” I blurted out.
Greg glanced back at me, then back to the books. “Because some snot nosed kid broke me out of a funk that I’d been in for too many years.” He grabbed two books, like he’d had them set aside for quite a while before turning back to me. “Hey, how’d you ever get to breathing through your nose normally, anyway?”
I shrugged a little. “I had a para use their power on me. Then I harassed Mr. Farshtey enough that he worked to give me back my sense of smell.”
“Mmm.” He tapped the books against his free hand. “That sounds like you. By the way, speaking of Steve, we know more about his healing now, and why it didn’t work on your knee. I don’t know the details, but he’s back to working. Though, folks who had a lot of work done to them have to have an MRI or CAT scan or something.”
I shuddered inwardly. The scanning equipment at Mother’s had been nice, even relaxing. The stuff here was loud enough to be heard outside the hospital, painfully slow, and you could feel the vibration far too much.
“That’s good.” Mr. Farshtey was a good guy, who spent most of his day trying to heal even the bumps and scrapes of kids around here. The more aggressive aspect of his power was disgusting from what I understood, but nobody would ever talk to me about that. No matter how much I begged for the details.
“Anyway,” Greg said, holding out the two books. “Homesteader’s Chemistry, and a generic book on how to homestead. I figured that if you decided to hunker down, you might want these. Sorry, but I couldn’t fit them into the satchel.”
As I took the books from him, he chuckled softly. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I did up that satchel, trying to fit in more flower or salt or whatever. But I know how much it sucks to have bland, flavorless food without even salt, so…”
He shrugged, before smiling awkwardly at me. I smiled back. “Thank you. I’ll make sure everything goes to good use somehow.”
He clapped my shoulder before nodding once. “Do me proud, Jordan.”
That was a dismissal if I’d ever heard one. I was glad to have this all over, feeling unsure of why I’d even come here in the first place. “You got it, Greg.”
I gave him a smile before heading out, hurrying back to where I’d entered the wall. Time was running out before dawn, only an hour or so before light started to poke out, and I needed to get a move on. The guard at the gate showed me as much interest as ever as I left the Orphanage and headed back to the Cultists.
The man was waiting for me as I entered the building. “You took longer than I expected,” he said, a pensive and worried tone to his voice. Paul. Paul was his name.
“Yeah, sorry. Spent longer at the monument than I thought.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, eyeing my satchel and books. “Let’s get you loaded back up and on your way.”
As soon as we were back in the private study, I pulled the robes off, offering them to him. Paul shook his head. “Keep them as a reminder. And you could probably use an easy disguise. Consider it… Consider it a gift.”
I frowned a bit. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” he said quickly. “Let’s get you geared up.”
It didn’t take long, not with Paul helping me get my pack secured on my armor again. He seemed eager to get me out of here ASAP, gong so far as to hand me my weapons as quick as I could stow them. It wasn’t even five minutes before I was walking out the front door again without so much as a goodbye.
That was fine, though. I was getting a little tired of awkward conversations.
I walked fast at first, and then ran to the spot where I’d teleported in. It was easy to tell just by where tree trunks were partially severed by the teleporter. Even in the lack of light from the new moon, I could make them out.
A quick adjustment to the settings, and I teleported again, this time into the middle of a field. I wasn’t sure if it had an outward burst of light or anything, so I hit the ground, glancing around. Not just to check for danger, but to orientate myself to my surroundings.
Far enough from the city walls that I didn’t have to worry. Good.
I took a moment to study the teleporter. 18% charge. Crap. That wasn’t enough to put me into another dimension at all. It could get me a decent distance away once I finished up here, but still. I’d have to find a place to charge it tomorrow. Or today. Or whatever. Time zones were hard to wrap my mind around.
I closed the cover of the display and gripped my halberd. This was where things got tricky — I wouldn’t be able to sneak inside the way that I had at the Orphanage. I had a way in mind, but it would mean leaving everything but my belt behind for a little bit. That was a good way to lose it all.
I put that thought out of my head as I stalked towards the wall of the city. By the time that I got there, the memory of the thought was gone, buried deep inside. That let me quickly shuck my gear and pack the Cultist’s robes into my pack, taking extra care to pack it in the scant room next to where I’d stashed my helmet. Against the wall like this, the guards probably wouldn’t see my stuff.
I also took the time to get a bag out, strapping it against my body with some cord.
With that prep out of the way, I found the corner of the wall that I was looking for. While the walls only turned at right angles, that didn’t mean that it was a square. Sometimes, the walls had to turn outwards. That provided someone with experience climbing an easier opportunity to scale them. Someone like me. It wasn’t exactly easy, but I was able to manage it fairly quietly, even in this darkness.
A quick check to make sure that there weren’t any guards nearby on the catwalk, and I vaulted the top of the wall. I didn’t wait but a quick moment before hopping off the catwalk. My landing form was good; land on the balls of my feet, down to a crouch, slapping my hands against the ground. It didn’t make nearly as much noise as one might think, even with the burlap bag bouncing against me. I was glad I’d padded the contents pretty good, though.
It was funny how easily sneaking like this came to me. Ducking behind houses, avoiding the light of streetlamps, and hugging walls. I’d done a lot of sneaking as a kid, not because I trained in it or anything, but because adults got all growly if they caught you out of your room to train after bedtime.
It didn’t take me long to reach my destination. Doors were unlocked, a practice that made sense. It wasn’t that crime wasn’t a thing, it was that it was a subconscious effort to show to the public that parahumans could be trusted. If one left their home open to them, showing trust to the community, then the community trusted them. It didn’t necessarially work that way, but it was the way that it had been explained to me by my teachers.
They did studies on the weirdest of things.
I made my way through the house slowly, keeping my ears perked. Silence. Good. Hopefully, I wouldn’t wake anyone up as I crept down the hall towards the bedrooms.
I skipped the first room and went straight for the one that would be the hardest. Carefully, I opened the door and peeked inside.
No Chris. Nobody breathing in there at all. That made me stand up straight, blinking. That was new, and mildly unexpected. Unless he was in the lab working, he should have been here sleeping. Odd.
I pushed the thought out of my head as I opened the bag, carefully moving the padding. With a lot less concern now, I pulled out the small wrapped box and entered the room to set it on his nightstand.
It wasn’t much, and I was terrible at wrapping gifts. All that I’d been able to get him were some exotic materials, trace from parahumans, and a cookbook in English. Not enough exotic materials to make anything with, and the crystal and liquid samples from the parahumans were annoyingly small, but maybe it could inspire him to make something new and cool. I wasn’t sure. At least I knew he could use the cookbook. It had Swedish stuff, and I knew he was curious about that.
I made my way into Sarah’s room, still not bothering too much with stealth. She’d be in training with the Wardens right now. She might even be in the last stages of her training thanks to the classes we’d taken at the Orphanage, which would be nice. The chances of her being home would be nill, so it wasn’t much to worry about.
Not that she was getting anything more than the small necklace I’d made. It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but I thought that she’d approve of something crafted by my own hand.
I spared a glance at her bed — the sheets were still messed up, though the bed was empty. Probably stayed Friday night, and Tabby and Tim hadn’t gotten around to making it yet. Or, more likely, she’d swung by, spent the night, and then the entire family had packed up to go to New York to show her some support.
I smiled softly. Good. She needed it. More importantly, she deserved it.
The door to Tim and Tabby’s room was open, and now that I was actually paying attention, empty. They were the hard ones to buy for. I knew what to get Chris or Sarah, but those two? I had to make blind guesses.
The last two items in the baggy were pulled out, one placed on each nightstand. A bottle of aquavit for each of them. It was Norwegian alcohol, so I hoped that they’d enjoy something that was pretty rare in these parts. At least, I hoped it was rare — I didn’t actually know much about alcohol.
I smiled to myself, feeling… Not content, but at least satisfied. I’d delivered Christmas presents to each of the members of my family, even if it was March 19. Good. Now I could almost leave town with no regrets.
Almost. There were some things that were missing.
Since nobody was home, I didn’t have to worry about sneaking to my room. My only concern was getting the heavy drapes closed and sealed. I still closed the door to my room, but I didn’t have to worry about the light from under the door waking anyone up.
As soon as the room was lit, I moved to the bed, got down on one knee, and reached down to pull out… Nothing. That was odd. I felt again before tilting all the way over to look.
There weren’t even the presents that I’d hidden to distribute for Christmas. Odd. Maybe they were given out? Or maybe claimed by the Wardens for some reason? Perhaps they were investigating if I had been affected by some sort of power that had infected something I owned?
Okay, that was a bit of a stretch, even to my imagination.
Frowning, I crossed to the bookshelf. All of the main books were there, including the James Burke ones. Good. The drawings of my siblings were gone, though. Bad.
I gently tapped the bookshelf, thinking. Well, less thinking and more of clearing my mind to see what else I might see. A person’s mindset could affect what the conclusions that they’d draw. Sometimes, when you were able to, it was better to clear your mind of all preexisting thoughts so that you could just observe. Sometimes, you’d see things that you otherwise wouldn’t.
My eyes scanned the room again. My bookcase was good, my small kitchenette was in order, my bed was made, my training dummy was in place, my wardrobe and dresser looked alright, my old halberd was mounted on the wall, my table had nothing on it… There didn’t seem to be anything out of place on the surface.
Everything that was missing were the things that I’d tucked away. Check the other things that weren’t in plain sight.
I moved to the dresser and opened each drawer. My clothes were all there, but there were things that were missing. Nothing major, just little things. A pair of drawers, my favorite shorts for swimming, brass knuckles, spare ammo, portable soup, dehydrated soup, that sort of thing.
Instead of going directly to the wardrobe, I instead went for the refrigerator, opening it. Naturally, it was empty. The same for the freezer. That spoke volumes. I’d kept pemmican in there in case I had to go out and forgot to restock properly. I’d kept quite a bit of it in the freezer, and now there was nothing.
Thieves would have gone for my halberd before they went for the pemmican.
Biting my lip, I returned to the wardrobe and checked inside. The fact that most of my old suits of armor were in there also told me they hadn’t been stolen. Only a couple of the oldest ones were missing, and not ones that had been side by side. My first suit, and my third. All of the gear that I’d kept in the bottom of the wardrobe was missing, too.
First and third. I looked around the room again, feeling that I was missing something. It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the wall that I realized what it was. I’d helped make my halberd right before Chris had made my first suit. When he’d made my third, I retired it because not only was I too tall for it now, but he had made me the halberd that I currently used.
I moved up to the halberd quickly, reaching up to run my hands along the shaft. Nothing unusual. The moment that I lifted it from the wall, however, I could see it. A series of pinpricks on the wall, along with scrapes.
//. . ./ ./. – .. /. – .// /// ./. /./ … …. /// .//.
Morse code. “Gear in workshop.”
My lips twisted into a sad smile. I had a key to the workshop in one of the hard pouches of my belt, one thing that Chris had made sure that I had before letting me go off on my own. He’d let me know where to find the message through a contextual clue that nobody but us would know. And then he must have studied one of the books on cryptography on my bookshelf to figure out how to write the message.
Here he was, still trying to help me.
I returned the old halberd to the wall, shut off the lights and made my way back out. The workshop wasn’t far, but I still had to hurry — the horizon was starting to get a little less dark. Even worse, some early birds were getting up to get their day started. I had to do this fast and quiet.
It was made harder by going to the front door, but the back one would be more dangerous. It served as a loading bay for the workshop, and getting it open would make too much noise. The front door was more visible, but I could get it open fast and quiet.
As I reached the door, I tried the handle first. It turned, but the door didn’t open. Strange. I glanced at the locks, and now there was one mounted on something other than the doorknob. Interesting. With a frown, I got out the flashlight from my belt, fumbled to open the hard plastic-like pouch behind my hip…
…and almost jumped out of my skin when the door in front of me opened. A woman stared at me in silence for a long moment. I couldn’t see her face in this light, but I could tell who it was by the profile of her body and the color of her hair, even if it was in a different style.
“Karen,” I whispered.
She didn’t say anything, simply stepped to the side and motioned me in. As soon as I was past the door, she closed it behind me.
“He’s in the main workshop,” she mumbled. She sounded tired. Poor thing. Chris must have gotten an idea in the middle of the night, and had dragged her out to the workshop with him.
“Thanks,” I said, my heart sinking. As much as I wanted, kind of needed to see Chris again, a part of me didn’t want to. It would probably hurt more in the long run if I didn’t see him, get to say goodbye to my brother, but it would also hurt more right now, not being able to stay.
Each step down the long, dimly lit hallway was like a stab to my chest. I told myself several times that I could just turn around and leave. That I didn’t really need those pictures. That it would be better for everyone if Chris didn’t have to say goodbye.
Instead, I plastered a bright grin on my face as I stepped into the much more brightly-lit room. There was a lot more equipment in here than when I’d left — apparently he had been hard at work on something. Or multiple somethings. Somehow, he passenger had really woken up for him.
Chris was slouched on a bench, elbows on his knees and head down. When he looked up, the dark circles under his eyes told me how tired he was.
“Hey,” he said softly. I noticed he didn’t smile.
“Heya, Bro.” I paused to look around. A whole lot of new machinery. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”
That got a shadow of a smirk out of him. “Yeah. Got some employees now. They aren’t the greatest, save for one.” He glanced behind me.
I glanced to Karen, who smiled weakly. “Yeah. I decided that since Sarah was joining the Wardens, someone had to make sure he actually made some money. I made you a promise, after all.”
Something tickled in the back of my head. “So you’re learning math well?” …Yeah, that sentence came out sounding real intelligent, Jordan.
She chuckled a little, shrugging. “I’m learning as I go. Fortunately, we have enough money coming in that I can make some mistakes and learn from them.”
“She doesn’t give herself enough credit,” Chris said. “She’s got a tutor helping her, and she’s picking it up pretty fast.”
My smile widened. “Good! So, uh, how’re things going with the two of you?”
“Good,” she said in that horrible I’m going to pretend that there’s nothing wrong voice.
“We’ve had a couple of fights,” Chris corrected. She shot him a glare as she moved next to him, but he just shrugged. “We’re taking it one day at a time, though, trying to figure out how to make it work well.”
I felt like I should say something, but nothing came. Crap, this was happening a lot lately, and I was getting really sick of it.
Fortunately, Chris made his way to his feet. “Come on, I made you a new suit of armor.”
He began to walk, and I couldn’t help but chuckle as I followed. “Another?”
“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “Like I said, new employees helping me, and I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas. Some of them from the stuff you brought back from St. Louis. I’ve been incorporating them into the armor when I can.”
He walked up to a dummy and pulled off the sheet covering it. The design looked solid, reliable. Similar to what I was currently wearing, but with key differences that I couldn’t overlook. The first was a new color scheme — the red was far darker, and the blue was almost black.
The biggest thing, though, was in the subtle differences. Little things that made the armor look more imposing, intimidating. This… wasn’t a heroes armor. I didn’t like that about it.
Chris touched the neck. “The collar bothered you, so here’s a removable neck piece. It offers complete neck protection, and can seal up to your helmet so that the entire outfit can be airtight. I improved the pack, too, so that it’s airtight and can handle more weight before throwing off the weight distribution. It’s a bit larger, but not too much.
“I also set it up so that it’ll work with your halberd. You should be able to attach your shaft, or any sections of it, to the back just fine. It’ll work better with the pack, though.
“The helmet’s a little bit improved, with better air filters. You should be able to suck some air out of the water if submerged. Not a lot, not enough for you to stay underwater forever, but it should help. I have an idea on how to improve it, but my passenger isn’t giving me the last steps on how to make it better.
“It’s got an additional layer to help with total body impact, but you shouldn’t rely on it — it’s pretty weak. The electricity generation is vastly improved, though. I had to up my game in order to support the big features.”
He moved away to slip on a spare glove he’d made before returning. “First off, greater security. The more time that you spend wearing the suit, the more time that it locks into you. Anyone can pull it off of you right now if they know how, but eventually only you will be able to work the seams.
“There’s a bunch of microseams, by the way. We kept the big ones only because it makes taking it off a lot easier. You’ll have to play around to learn where they are.
Chris moved to the left wrist of the armor, showing off some tiny knobs on the back of the forearm. “The buttons only react if the armor is hitting them, and shouldn’t go off on accident. Or get caught on anything.” I couldn’t see where he pressed, but I could see what it did immediately.
The helmet disappeared, letting me see the head of the mannequin. I couldn’t help but grin a little — that was kind of awesome.
“It hasn’t teleported or anything. There’s a coating on the helmet that allows it, or just the faceplate if you choose, to act as a very advanced light hole. You can have it active, but light-based attacks won’t pass through it. Well, not direct damage ones, at least. Parahuman-produced regular light will still possibly blind you. My passenger wouldn’t give me a good filter for that.”
I looked from the helmet to Chris, grinning like a fool. “Is it an upgrade from your invisibility cloth?”
“Nah,” he said softly as he turned off the effect. “Completely different mechanism at work here. And it isn’t nearly as flammable.” That wasn’t the only problem with the invisibility cloth; there were enough drawbacks that it could only be used with a lot of consideration in advance.
“Besides,” he continued, “it requires a whole lot more power, which is why I had to improve my built-in generators.” He shut it back off. “Once activated, if you hold still you can hide the entire helmet for an hour or so. It’ll last longer if you walk, run or fight. Even longer if you just hide the faceplate.”
If it required that much more power than the invisibility cloth but could last an hour, he must have seriously improved the generators. I was impressed. “Any chance I can leech off some of that power for other things?”
Chris nodded a little, a hint of a smile forming on his face. “One step ahead of you, Bro. You’ll be able to charge all of the batteries that I made easily. I’m not sure about your teleporter, but I wouldn’t risk it. I couldn’t examine it to make an adapter that I was sure wouldn’t blow it out.”
“That’s cool,” I said with a nod. “You did an amazing job.”
An amused puff of air escaped his nose, but his smile didn’t change. After a moment, it faded a little. “You… You should change into it. Now.”
“Hvad?” I asked, turning to look at him directly.
Chris looked down at his feet, his lips pressing into a thin line. He was silent for a long moment, and when he spoke, it was filled with strange pauses. “I… worry about… you, Bro. Things are… going to get dangerous for you. I want to make sure you can… handle them, okay? Whatever dangers the world throws your way.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. He was worried, and I could understand that. But at the same time… I reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to look up at me.
“Chris… This…” I put a hand to my chest. “This design, it’s me. It’s the me that I’ve always been, that I always wanted to be. The… The shape, the color, the everything. It’s me. And don’t give me a line about the other being better. Every armor you’ve ever made me has always been perfect.
“That…” I gestured towards the new armor. “It’s good, it’s beautiful, but… It’s who I’m going to become. Who I have to become. And… Heck, forgive me, Bro, but I want to stay me just a little bit longer. Just… a little longer, alright?”
I wasn’t really making sense, not even to myself. I’d gone for trying to communicate something that I felt deep within me, but had floundered a bit. I just didn’t know how to communicate what I was feeling. I just wanted to be the same old big brother. I didn’t want to leave it all behind.
I should have ran when I had the chance.
It didn’t take long for him to envelop me in a tight hug, pressing his eyes into my shoulder. “You big idiot,” he whispered. “How can I argue with that?”
I smiled sadly as I hugged him back. When we had a conflict of wills, I tended to lose against him unless I had good logic to back myself up. It was strange to have him relent so easily. I chalked it up to stress.
I wasn’t sure which one of us disengaged first, but I was glad that we did. Not because I wanted to let go, but because of the opposite. I could have hugged my little brother forever at this point. It was better that I let go, in the end.
Neither one of us knew what to say for a long moment. To fill the space, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Uh, some of my stuff is missing from my room. Did…?”
“Yeah,” Chris interrupted. “Yeah, I did. Sorry.” That… wasn’t what I was thinking in the slightest, but alright. “I… I figured that you’d be by sooner or later, so I took the initiative and collected everything that you needed.”
He grinned weakly. “Which clue did you find?”
There were more than one? I blinked at him, shifting uncomfortably. “Uh, the missing armors lead me to the halberd.”
He chuckled softly, but it was Karen who spoke. “I owe you five bucks.”
If he would have put more energy into it, Chris would have been beaming. “I told you, I know my brother.” He turned his attention back to me. “I picked up some more gear for you. Come on, help me strip the armor so we can pack it up for you.”
Crap. I’d been hoping that we could avoid that. I forced an easy smile to my face as I moved to help him. “What all did you get me?”
“Oh, just stuff that you could probably use. Paracord, some seeds, food…” Why was everyone giving me food? I hadn’t let myself starve yet, and I didn’t plan on letting it happen, either. “Guide books on homesteading, more firestarter balls, the balls that smother a fire, some cookware, salt, some money…”
“I don’t need money,” I said defensively. “You’ve already given me enough.”
Chris sighed, looking up to me with tired eyes. “No I haven’t. I could give you every paycheck from Tattletale, and it wouldn’t be enough. Not until I know you can keep yourself safe, healthy, and happy.”
“That was… kinda lame.” I couldn’t think of a better way to get out of how awkward this was getting.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
While we stripped the armor off the mannequin, Karen got a large, heavy-looking duffle bag and hefted it onto a workbench. I paused in my work as I realized something. “That was surprisingly quiet.”
“Another project,” Chris said with a wave of his hand. He seemed more intent on speed than anything now. A quick glance to the window told me why — the sun wasn’t peeking over the horizon yet, but it was getting light out.
Everything but the armor was in separate cloth bags in the duffel. That was probably some part of why nothing was making noise. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to worry about getting out when everyone was awake. I could just do some experiments later and make guesses.
As soon as we got it all loaded up, Chris turned to me, frowning. “Listen, Bro. I’m paying for the town to have Dragon’s Teeth right now. Well, a half team per shift. It’s expensive, but…” He shrugged a little, words failing him.
I raised my eyebrows for a moment before nodding. “Good. I’m… actually really glad to hear that.” With the Wardens in town, that meant that he’d be safe. That felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. I hadn’t even realized I’d been worrying about that.
“Yeah, well…” He paused as I shouldered the duffel bag. It was heavy; even with my pack I’d slow down. “Listen, what’s your teleporter charge at?”
“Enough,” I said hesitantly. “I won’t be able to get as far as I’d like, but I can get far enough.” Not really, but I could get close enough to a city to get a ride somewhere else. Anywhere else.
“Okay, good.” He frowned a little, hesitating. “Promise me that you’ll just get your gear and go, then.”
I sighed softly. “Chris…”
“No.” He paused, not looking me in the eye. “Just… Just do this for me. Get your gear, and disappear. No stops, no pauses. Nobody can see you, not the Dragon’s Teeth, not the guards, nobody. Or else it’ll cause problems for you later down the road. They don’t need to know you were here. It’s just another normal day, okay?”
I paused, but Karen stepped up. “Seriously, Jordan. You have to do this. Not just for us, but for yourself. Please.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. This hurt. “Okay,” I lied. “I hear you. No distractions. Get my bags, get on, get gone.”
Immediately, Chris was hugging me again, tighter than I would have given him credit for. To be fair, I was pretty sure that I was hugging him back just as fiercely. When he pulled back, there were tears in his eyes. “Love you, Jordan.”
I smiled back at him, somehow keeping my own eyes from watering. Maybe I was just all out of tears. “Love you too, Chris.”
Anything else would have just prolonged it, so I turned away, walking up to Karen and putting a hand on her shoulder. “Take care of the both of you, alright?”
She nodded slowly, and spoke in a quiet, sad tone. “Last time, you just said to take care of him.”
I shrugged a bit. “You’re family now.”
Her eyes bulged. “I… We…”
“Yeah, neither of you is wearing a ring, I get that.” I flashed her a smile. “Doesn’t change that you’re family now.” I patted her shoulder and began to walk. Keep it quick. Long goodbyes just made everything harder, but at least we weren’t promising to keep in touch or something.
“Take care of yourself, idiot!” Somehow, her calling after me like that made the corners of my mouth twist up slightly of their own accord. “And if you gotta, fight hard!”
As if I ever didn’t fight hard. Even if I wasn’t hurting anyone, it was still work.
I put it out of my head, waving without looking back. A quick peek out the door to confirm that there was nobody around, and I was taking off. Before it had been creeping, but now I was going as quickly as possible while keeping a low profile. The sun would be making itself apparent soon, and that would be enough to put me in a world of trouble.
As I got to the stairs leading up to the wall’s catwalk, though, I noted that there were no guards manning it. I lucked out — shift change. I could use a little luck. Up the stairs, gently drop the bag to the ground, then vault the wall. Far too little time being weightless, then a hard landing. Almost too much for me to disperse the kinetic energy without rolling, but not quite enough.
As soon as I had all of my gear collected, I took off. Not for the old tree, though that would be a fitting place to teleport from. I might very well do it later. No, instead I was heading for the grove of trees.
It was a small woodland completely surrounded by farmland. Nothing all that special in the end, not from the outside. One could easily be forgiven for missing the path into it. But I was told that you could see it was only a ring if you could fly over it.
How I’d hoped that I’d get to see that, propelled by my own power. That wasn’t going to happen.
I should have hurried down the path, but outside of the prying eyes of the village, hidden by a thick circle of trees, it wasn’t a concern. I didn’t have it in me to hurry anyway. My legs felt like lead as I came into the clearing, as the headstones came into view. I stopped, staring at the closest and most prominent of the lot.
Lyle Gillis, 1979-2017
It wasn’t the city founder, but the first person to die in the city. They’d started the grove after that, planting fast-growing trees. It was almost full now, though. When people had realized that Earth Bet wasn’t going to be getting warm any time soon, during the exodus period, plenty of people had settled in Burlington. Some of them weren’t in good condition to start with. Then there was illness, bandits, wildlings and more.
I sighed softly, reaching out a hand to gently rub at the stone pillar that served as the man’s gravestone.
“Heya Bro. Didn’t think you’d get to leave without seeing me, did you?”