“Are you sure that you don’t want something?”
The pain was exquisite. It wasn’t something that I relished, though — masochism wasn’t my thing. At the same time, pain was a way of knowing that you were alive. Ever since Riley had put me back together again, I didn’t have those constant little aches and twinges.
I controlled my breathing as the glass in my back shifted a little before finally being pulled free. Only then did I speak again.
“I’ve had worse.” It was true, at least. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what the doctor was offering, if I should trust him, or even what I should think about the situation.
Instead of going to my new employees, we’d gone back to our proper staging grounds. Sure, I’d told my employees to get an infirmary set up, but a couple of days meant that they wouldn’t have much done yet. Even if they’d immediately gotten to work, they would probably only have the basics set up, using whatever they could buy in their village. And none of them would be professionally trained.
Instead, we’d turned to Fenix. He and John were a good ten feet away, chain smoking as they watched. Fenix was leaned against the wall, favoring his bum leg. Our ladies were on the opposite side of the room, thankful for the cracked window. Within ten minutes of us walking through the door and showing Fenix my back, a doctor had been ushering me into the shop’s back room.
The doctor made a displeased noise, but didn’t press the issue. “You’re lucky that it didn’t go in deeper. I don’t think it fully got through the skin, but it’s bad enough that it’s going to scar still.” He paused for a moment before going at another piece of glass with tweezers. “Someone must have taken real good offense to you.”
“He got into a fight with a cheese wheel,” Kathy said dryly.
“Ah,” the doctor said absently. “Those things are evil.”
That was a bit of a relief.
“Samson here’s a good one,” Fenix said slowly. “Tried and true. And he knows when to keep his mouth shut.”
The doctor snorted as he got another piece out. That one didn’t feel like it broke as he pulled it out, thank goodness.
“It’s appreciated,” I murmured. “I’m sorry to pull you here this late.”
“I won’t lie,” Samson said softly as he worked. “It’s going to cost you.”
“We’ll pay,” John said quickly. “Don’t you worry about that.” I flashed him a questioning look, and he smiled. “Even keeping a couple of the weird pistols like you asked, we’re making enough money to cover it.”
Fenix nodded quickly. “Calicos are a rarity on the open market these days. They’re considered valuable because they look different from everything else and can put a stream of bullets down once they’re modified. These weren’t modified the best, but they’ll still fetch a great rate. Them and the other weapons that you brought will pay for Doc, I’m sure.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. I didn’t like it. It made me gasp a little as the doctor worked another shard of glass from under my skin.
Fortunately, Kathy seemed to read my need to a distraction and spoke up. “You were pretty angry back there.”
“Lay off,” Emi said, but I lifted a hand to silence her.
“I’ve had anger management issues on occasion, yeah. But I kept it under control. I didn’t break any of them.”
“That’s not what I saw,” Kathy said flatly. “There were a lot of broken limbs in your wake.”
“Ah. Them.” I sighed. This wasn’t a conversation that I wanted to be having, especially with glass shards being fished out of my back, but it was better than silence. “Listen, in a fight, you’ve got two choices. Let it drag out, in which case people can die, or end it fast, in which case people get hurt. They didn’t care if they got me dead or alive, and I got the feeling that they were more interested in dead.”
“That’s the last one,” Doc said behind me. “Gonna start with the iodine now.”
“That’s fine,” I said to him. “Thank you.”
I looked back to Kathy. “I had to put them down as hard and as fast as I could. That meant making sure that they wouldn’t get back up. And that meant breaking bones. It’s real hard to shoot a gun when you can’t move your hand, let alone lift it.”
“For what it’s worth,” John said, “I agree. When someone is dead set on killing you, you gotta do what you gotta do.” He paused to put out his cigarette. “I gotta admit, I was a little surprised by the… The third party showing up.”
Ah, the Warden Cadets.
“I thought you said that they’d send, uh, bigger fish after us.”
I took a breath, though it was admittedly half because of the iodine. My body was still so sensitive. I didn’t like it.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “This breaks a ton of protocol. Their leader broke protocol with what he did, too. If he got involved, he should have gone full core, not called them down. Well, calling them down is part of his thing if it’s a stupid fight, but he had me flanked nicely. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what’s going on.”
“That medic was smart,” Emi said, nodding slowly.
“Was he cute?” Brenda asked hopefully, but Kathy shushed her.
“I’m just saying, he did about the right thing to keep you ripping into him, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. He seemed to care more about the job than his orders. It was a weird thing to think about. Warden’s jobs were to help people, but a response team’s prime objective was whatever their orders were. It was a hard place, and in retrospect, I could understand why cadets would focus on me.
That medic had a future ahead of him. The rest of them… I wanted to believe that they’d learned something, but I also wanted to believe that I could have used some percussive education to help drive the point home.
Too deep for me, especially with the pain that I was in. I needed a subject change. “What are we…” I had to pause as one cut screamed at me particularly loudly. “What are we going to do about the offer?”
Kathy shook her head quickly. “Nope. Not touching it, not meeting up with him. Nexus always has something up his sleeve. He might want to thank you, but he’ll use whatever he gives you as a way to sink his teeth into you. It might be something simple at first, but the next thing that you know you’re phoning him up for orders constantly.”
“He has a phone?” Brenda asked again.
“It’s a figure of speech, dear.” Emi sighed, turning back to Kathy. “I hate to admit it, but I’m with you on this one. I’m none too keen to be under his thumb. They say he treats his folks well, but…” She shook her head. “I don’t wanna be tied completely to someone else’s whims like that.”
John nodded. “I concur. I doubt that I’m butchering him too much, but in the words of Steinbeck, the word timshel–”
“Thou mayest?” Kathy asked softly.
“Yes,” he said patiently. “Please, let me finish. The word timshel, or–”
A hand was waving in front of my face, making me blink rapidly. I looked up to find Emi frowning over me. “You spaced out there pretty bad.”
“Pain,” I muttered. It wasn’t the truth, but it was easier to explain. “Easier to just let my mind just wander into oblivion.”
“Can’t blame you,” Samson said. “But the iodine’s on, and I’ve bandaged everything. All in all, it’ll set you back two hundred for that.”
John got out his money purse from his pocket. “How much in New Brockton coin?”
“Seventy. I gotta take the time to get it exchanged.” That was still pretty high. About a week’s wages for a good job in New Brockton. Probably the iodine. For some reason, it was getting expensive these days.
“What if I can replace your iodine?” I asked.
The doctor stepped around to look at me with a raised eyebrow. “How do you plan on doing that?”
I wasn’t about to tell him that it was the chemistry book that I was given. “I learned a way to extract iodine from seaweed a long time ago. I’ll have to play around with it a little to remember it exactly, but I could have it for you in two or three days.”
Samson nodded slowly, thoughtful. “Can you teach me that trick?”
“I can,” I said slowly. John was giving me an even stare behind the good doctor. I could take a hint. “But that’s a pretty valuable skill for someone in your trade.”
“And we might not need your help again in the future,” John added.
“Hmph.” The doctor folded his arms. “I doubt that, boy. I might not have been listening, but I know the kind of person who has trouble follow them. You’re firmly one of those. I’ll drop it down to twenty in Brockton coin, and from here on out, you won’t get charged my housecall or trap shut fees.”
John didn’t waste any time in counting out the coinage. Yeah, I couldn’t blame him. Meanwhile, Kathy looked at me. “Alright, big man. Here’s the deal. You? You’re taking it easy until your back and shoulder are healed up a bit. I don’t want you keeping those cuts from healing. But…”
She glanced around the group. “Anyone have any problems with him getting a little more serious about how to fight?”
There wasn’t a single disagreement among them.
“Don,” said the man who owned the bookstore, his face lighting up. “I was wondering when you were going to drop by.”
I wished that I could remember his name. “Yeah, sorry about that.” I set the book down on the counter, a hopeful smile on my face. “Any chance my order arrived?”
“All of your order arrived,” he said with a grin, not bothering to go for it. “Let me guess… You’re not just researching Armsmaster, but how having powers might affect both him and Taylor?”
I grinned a little, a small bit of nervousness creeping up. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Cool.” He took the book that I was returning and moved to get the other three. “I’ve been thinking about the last debate that we had, about nobody being an island and how the people we interact with help shape who we are and how we respond to the world. I think that you might be right.”
“Really?” I’d just told him that to play off my interest in Armsmaster while still playing the role of a cultist. I didn’t actually believe any of it.
“Yeah, really.” He ran his bottom lip between his teeth. “I, uh… I’m looking into it a bit. I mean, there’s been some writings on the Undersiders, especially after Taylor met up with them, but I don’t think that anyone’s done any real heavy research into their pasts. You’ve probably done more research than me.”
Crap, not really. Not any more than what I’d been taught in my Parahuman History classes. Thankfully, I hadn’t come alone.
“Don here’s done a bit of that,” Kathy said. “But his main focus is Defiant, you know? From the period that Taylor was interacting with him on a regular basis. John’s more of the one who focuses on the Undersiders.”
Emi nodded eagerly, supporting the statement.
“Oh,” the man said, a little crestfallen. “Well, uh… Perhaps we could talk some time about your research? I’d buy lunch or something?”
Crap, crap, crap. “I’m, uh, I’m not quite ready to put it all together yet for a good debate, but give me a bit of time, and I’d love to.” More like, some time to figure out how I’d lie my way through that lunch.
Now he lit up, smiling brightly. “I’ll look forward to it! Now, let’s get you rung up.”
I paid for my books, and Kathy got her batch — a romance novel for herself and Brenda, Oliver Twist for John, and I didn’t catch the last book. Emi had ordered a book herself, but I didn’t get a good enough look at the kanji to know what it was.
As we left the shop, Emi looked up to me. “I’m surprised that you agreed to that lunch.”
“What was I supposed to say, no?” I sighed softly. “Now I gotta figure out what I’m going to talk about.”
Kathy snorted. “I don’t think he cares much about what you actually say, dude.” I gave her a questioning look, only for the both of them to laugh.
“Idiot,” Emi said between her bouts of laughter. “He was asking you on a date!”
“Oh? Oh!” My eyes went wide as I looked back at the store. “Oh! I didn’t… Huh!”
Emi laughed again. “Exactly! I didn’t think you were into guys.”
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug. That made the two of them stop and look at me oddly. “What? I’ve never dated a guy before.”
“You’ve…” Kathy paused, trying to think of how to phrase it. “How do you not know if you’re into guys or not?”
I blinked at her for a moment before shrugging. “Because it’s never come up? I mean, I’ve dated a girl before, but… I mean, she approached me about it. I’ve never had a guy approach me before.”
That only made Kathy more confused, though. “But… What about… You know?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t know.”
“What about, uh, finding someone attractive? And the stuff that comes with that?”
I shrugged again. “I don’t really see attractive or not when I look at someone. Physique, sure. How they’re built, the length of their hair, that sort of thing. But I don’t really think about, uh, if they’re attractive or not.”
“Huh.” Kathy frowned a little before shrugging. “You’re a weird guy sometimes.”
I flashed her a grin and gave her the response that I gave most folks who said something like that. “Everyone’s strange but me and thee, and sometimes I wonder about thee.”
I frowned at the price of the ground ginger, but still snagged up the smallest package of it. I wasn’t out yet, but I didn’t want to suddenly run out while we were traveling. I still had a little while before they wanted to go out again — my back was healing nicely, but the others were hesitant. That said, when we went out, we usually walked until about midday, had lunch, teleported, then went to town. Better to have plenty for lunch than run the risk of running out.
The others were doing well in their training, though. John was started to get decent form on his punch. He was mainly a brawler, so trying to teach him martial arts might be a bit harder for him. It was better to teach him a move or two and go on. To do the punch right, though, he needed to get the form right. Boxing was all about perfect form.
His training to use his power more effectively was going a lot better. He was starting to learn how to shift between high density and low density rather quickly. Even more importantly, he was learning to adjust for wind while jumping.
Kathy was doing alright, I thought. Her speed was increasing nicely. Emi, though, was taking to the training like a duck to water. Anything that I tried to teach was absorbed quickly. I thought that she just liked physical activity that involved movement. Brenda was learning parkour nicely, and when we actually did fight training, she was getting along well enough. Still so much room for improvement when she wasn’t using her power, though. The dancing was helping, at least.
All in all, I was pleased with their progress. They were still new and needed a lot of work, but I could handle that.
I nodded to myself absently, looking down at the spices as I walked the aisle. There were a good number of spices in the general store, despite it being one of the cheaper ones. I was so intent on looking that I almost bumped into someone.
“Sorry,” I said quickly as I looked up, only to find the figure in front of me unmistakable. “Oh, Miss–”
“Samantha,” Miss Tease said patiently. It was weird seeing the owner of the burlesque club in normal clothes. “I’m not at work, so please, just Samantha. How are you doing, Don?”
I smiled a little, ducking my head. “Good. Though I’m always a little surprised that you know me so well.”
Miss Tease, Samantha giggled a little. “Your friends always drink top shelf, but while you’ll have maybe one beer, you usually drink milk. Sometimes I get the feeling that you’d be fine with water.”
I would be fine with water, but I felt like it wouldn’t be wise to mention it. Besides, I needed the calcium.
“You’ll also pay to have sake shipped in for your Japanese friend. That’s about the most that you spend from what I can tell. While they’re living it up, the only time that you really do is while you’re on the dance floor with your other ladyfriend. That sort of thing sticks out in my mind.”
“Okay,” I said sheepishly. “Yeah, you make a good point. I can see how I’d stick out.” I’d never really thought about it.
“Honestly, though, it’s that last one that sticks out. You haven’t been dancing very much.”
I sighed, lifting a shoulder in a shrug. “I got hurt a while back, and they don’t want me hurting myself.”
Samantha hummed softly to herself, fitting me with a critical gaze. “How’d you get hurt?”
Ah, this was one of those moments where it was better to skirt the issue. “I’m meat,” I said slowly. “When danger rears its ugly head, I’m the one that’s supposed to keep them alive.” Yes, explain without actually explaining.
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know how mercenaries like you can live like that. I want to be as far away from danger as possible. How you people can throw yourselves into it like that…”
“It isn’t for everyone,” I said with a nod. “I like protecting people, though. I’d be a guard, but being a mercenary pays better.”
That got a smirk out of her. “Says the guy buying the cheap spices.” It faded a little. “Let me guess, family you’re taking care of?”
“Something like that,” I lied. Time for a topic change. “I’m a little surprised that you’re shopping here.”
That got a laugh out of her. “Living large means managing your money. If I spend it all on food, I can’t pay my help.” Samantha paused, turning serious again. “Actually, if you’re hurting for money, you’ve got the right physique if you’re looking for a side job.”
“Right physique?” Wait… Oh, crap. “You mean to say, like, perform?”
“I mean to say,” Samantha said with a nod. “I’ve seen you dance. You’re muscular and athletic. I’d imagine that a few folks would like to see what you look like under your shirt.”
I took a shaking breath. “I c-couldn’t,” I said quickly. “On stage, in front of everyone like that? No, sorry, I…”
“It’s alright,” she said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “It’s not for everyone. I just thought I’d offer is all.”
It was funny. At the club, she was so boisterous and loud, but here, she was so gentle. I was reminded of the difference between myself normally and when we were working.
“So,” she said, placing a hand on her wide hip. “What do you plan on using that ginger for?”
“If I let you out, I won’t let you back in.” The guard crossed her arms, staring intently at me.
“Yeah,” I said softly. “I get that. Don’t worry, I’m planning on being up all night anyway.” She didn’t look convinced. “Listen, if I get hurt, or killed by wildlings or whatever, then it’s my own dumb fault. But I need to move around a little bit, and it’s hard to do that in the town. I know the risks, and I’m willing to take them.”
She gave a glance to my gear. I’d broken down my halberd so the shaft was hidden by my robes, leaving me just holding the head. I’d also left my rifle back in my room along with my pack. But I had my belt and pistol, though she couldn’t see it.
Finally, she nodded slowly. “Fine, but it’s your funeral.” The woman worked the latch and opened the door for me. I offered her a polite smile as I stepped through and hurried my way down the road.
When I was sure that I was far enough away, I activated the teleporter. Instantly, I went from walls at a distance to a building within fifteen feet of me. I’d royally screwed up the guesswork on distances when setting the location. About five minutes of wandering through the open village before I found a bar. They were at least willing to give me directions.
It took me a whole half an hour to get to where I was going. Once I’d been out of the town, I’d gone ahead and put my halberd back together. Now that I was looking at the small house on the river, I was glad that I did. There wasn’t any electricity, but I could see the flickering of lights inside. With more than a little trepidation, I knocked loudly on the door.
Almost a minute later, the door opened. “Jordan,” Charles said. He glanced around. “You didn’t bring your crew.”
They’d made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with Nexus, but I’d decided that it would be best to do this. It was stupid of me, and I completely knew that I was possibly stepping into a trap, which was why I’d worn my armor under the robes. But at the same time…
“I’m showing you trust. It doesn’t do us any good to say that we want to play nice with Nexus if we aren’t willing to trust that he will play nice. Besides, I’m not worried.” I was pretty sure I could handle most things that they could throw at me. Or I’d die trying, whichever.
Charles grinned a little before reaching out to clap my shoulder. “You’re alright.” He turned back inside, leaing the door open for me as he spoke. “Toldja he’d show.”
My blood went cold as I looked through the door, only to find a single woman in a skimpy shirt that barely covered her breasts and ridiculously short shorts sipping a drink as the other occupant. She quickly rose to her feet. “Jordan!” She crossed the room quickly, holding out her free hand. “It’s great to meet you. I’m a huge fan!”
What? I still took her hand in a polite shake. “The pleasure’s mine,” I said more out of reflex than anything.
“This is Clarissa, my… Well, girlfriend is a bit of a strong word, but its good enough for how long we’ve been associating.”
“You look a bit bewildered,” Clarissa said with a grin.
“I…” To heck with it, why not? “It just seems like every…” Wait, did she know what he did for a living? I didn’t want to push things where they didn’t belong…
Fortunately, Charles answered with a smirk. “Every criminal that you deal with is excited to meet you? Come on in, have a seat and I’ll explain.”
He waved me to a chair as Clarissa closed the door behind me. “See, the thing is Jordan, it’s pretty fucking obvious that you’re a badass, but if you’re actually a criminal? There is a little bit of debate on that. And even if you did do what the papers are saying that you did, which the Wardens haven’t actually come out and said yet, there’s the possibility that shit went on that we don’t know about.
“So maybe you did it, or maybe you didn’t. Nothing’s official yet, and not everyone is trusting what the man has to say about it.” What man? “And if you’re not looking like you might murderize them, people who might not trust the papers might still remember what it is known for sure that you did.
“Plus, if you did do all that stuff… Well, better to stay on your good side, right? An easy way to do that is to act happy to see you.”
That… made a depressing amount of sense. “Fair enough, I guess. Look, I’ll be honest with you. All this stuff? It’s still pretty new to me. I’m learning a lot as I go along.”
“That’s fine, man.” Charles sprawled out on the couch lazily. “You’re all good.”
“We’ve already eaten,” Clarissa said warmly. “But I wouldn’t mind making something for you. What would you like? Fish or pork?”
“Uh, you don’t have to go out of your way for–”
She fixed me with a mock glare. “Zip! If you’re hungry, I’ll gladly cook.”
“I can do it,” Charles said, moving to stand. Clarissa stopped him, though.
“He’s your guest, and you already cooked for the two of us. I don’t mind.” She looked back to me. “Would you like something?”
“Pork,” I said hesitantly. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
I hesitated again, but Charles jumped to my rescue. “All of it. What he doesn’t eat, he can take with him. How about something to drink?”
That was easier. “If it’s good, I’ll take water. Boring, I know, but I’m not much of a drinker.”
“To each their own,” she said with a shrug before wandering into the kitchen.
Charles grinned at me as soon as she was out of sight. “Nice, innit she?”
“Yeah.” She did seem rather nice. “I gotta admit, you aren’t quite what I was expecting when we met before.”
That got a laugh out of him, deep and from the belly. “What, for a drug cooker? Come on, man. I’m still human. I can’t be all business all the time. Seriously, though, I’m glad you came. I’m guessing you’ve been looking over your shoulder for a while now. Take the chance to just relax. I’ve got no reason to do wrong by you.”
I hadn’t been looking over my shoulder, not really. I just had to be careful with what I said and did to keep from giving away the five of us. Still… “Even with a price on my head?” I asked carefully.
He waved his hand dismissively. “So what? Honor amongst thieves and all that shit. Besides, only stupid people would come after you. You’ve fought off at least one set of Wardens, wildlings, fuck, Agamemnon… Nah, not worth it. Better to be your friend, you know?”
“I suppose.” I sighed softly, trying to relax a bit. “Still, it’s surprising. I’d figure your boss might want the cash.”
Charles snorted. “You got Nexus all wrong. Yeah, he’s a monster to his enemies, but he’s a good guy.”
“Who makes his money selling drugs.”
Clarissa came back in with two drinks. “A means to an end,” she said as she handed me my water and Charles… whatever he was drinking. The cups were pewter so I had no idea. “He’s actually a stand-up guy.”
“Yeah,” Charles said, pausing to swat at Clarissa’s rear as she went for the kitchen again. She paused long enough to shake it before flouncing off. “Listen, the money he makes off of us goes to good things. He invests in businesses and legit protects them, not run them down. He does things for communities that can’t afford the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth.
“Someone’s always gonna make drugs, because someone’s always gonna want them. We sell our shit pure instead of cutting it with something that might be nasty. And the dealers get the DL on what’s going on that the legit people might not know about. That lets the bossman know where he’s needed.”
“Or so he says.”
“Or so he says, yeah. I mean, that’s what I understand, but folks could be lying to me, sure. But I do know that we ship our shit out pure, so I try not to think too much about it. But he’s always done right by me and mine, so I’ve got no reason to doubt him.”
“Fair enough,” I said with a nod. If he’d only ever seen good things, then he’d be inclined to believe good things. That made sense, at least. I still wasn’t sure myself, though.
“Seriously, though.” Charles sipped his drink before leaning forward, putting one elbow on his knee. “How have you been holding up? You were in bad shape when I saw you.”
“Not as bad as I looked, believe me. There’s still some pain, but I’m almost ready to get back in the saddle.” I paused for a moment. “Did anyone die from what happened back there?”
He shrugged a bit. “No, but there’s some people in bad shape. Most of them from when the Machine opened fire like that. One that you tangled with has some brain damage, apparently.”
Fuck. I winced a bit, but he shook his head quickly.
“You’re fine, trust me. Nobody’s crying over them for what happened to ’em. Those Wardens rounded up anyone who attacked you, then when they found out that they were all Machine grunts, they rounded up all of them in town pretty quick. The balance of power’s messed up a bit now, but nobody’s actually complaining. They did something stupid, and everyone’s glad to see them suffer.
“If the Wardens hadn’t taken care of them, we probably would have. That shit don’t fly with us.”
“And you? Did the Wardens or anyone give you any trouble.”
Charles shook his head. “Nah. We kept our heads low, and they didn’t even notice us. Plus, between us and the casinos, the cops are pretty much owned there anyway. That said, we usually don’t get in their way. Nobody pisses anyone else off to the point that the others turn on them, and we’re happy to let the cops focus on keeping the peace and doing their jobs.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but I kept my mouth shut. I was here to play nice, not to tell him how I felt about criminals, even if my friends were ones themselves.
“As for Fuckwitz McGee who did the blabbing, one of Nexus’ guys came and took him. No idea what happened to him, but I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.”
“And yet you aren’t afraid of him,” I observed.
“Nah, man.” Charles shook his head. “Listen, it’s like… Okay, let’s say that one of the Dragon’s Teeth told someone how to get into an armory and gave them the access codes and shit. You’d expect the D.T. to come on them like stink on shit, right?”
“It’s the same basic thing. You know the rules, and so long as you follow them, it’s all gravy. They aren’t even bad rules. But you break those rules, and you get what’s coming to you. That’s life, you know?”
There was actually a bit of logic there that I couldn’t argue with, and that only made me dislike it that much more. “Are the people who told me going to suffer for it?”
“You did us a favor,” he said almost warmly. “We’d been looking for who else was putting it on the market, and if we would have found them, it probably wouldn’t have been pretty. You dismantled them, and I don’t think that they’re gonna make more.”
It struck me as a little odd. Here, he had a completely different tone than when I’d first met him. Maybe because he was away from his gang? Or was it just that he felt that he didn’t need to be formal here?
“They won’t,” I said quickly. “They know to stay in my good graces, and that includes not making any as long as they’re in my employ.”
“They work for you now?” He nodding, an impressed frown on his face. “Good thinking. Whatcha got them doing?”
Was it safe to say? I wasn’t sure, but I was going to try that honor amongst thieves bit. “Making a safehouse for us in case I get hurt again or need to lay low. Also stocking it so that we can patch ourselves up if need be.”
“I’ve also got them looking for black market Tinker tech. They’re out of the way, though, so I’m not sure if they’ll be able to find anything.”
Charles nodded slowly before taking a sip of his drink. “Alright, so. I can’t help with the black market stuff. I don’t touch Tinker tech; seen a guy melt himself using that shit. But what I can do is help get you some medicine and stuff if you want. Stuff that might be hard for them to get themselves.”
Stuff that they couldn’t get for themselves? “Like what?”
“I dunno, man.” Charles laughed. “I don’t know anything beyond a bandage about medicine.”
I frowned a little. “Don’t you make drugs?”
“I make a drug. Singular, and I’m not the one who figured out how to make it. And besides, that’s more chemistry than medicine. Heck, I don’t even touch the stuff. I’ll do peyote, but that’s as much as I’ll touch.”
I sighed softly, thinking. There had to be something. “Okay, how about… How much homework have you done on me?”
That sobered him up fast. “I’ll be honest, a lot. The bossman got a ton of info after what you did and directed it all to me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You keep being honest with me.”
“Even if the bossman hadn’t told me to, I would. You got hurt trying to do me a solid. I’m not even mad about the door. After all that happened, I don’t think anyone would have blamed you for just cutting your losses and walking away, but you kept at it. We were too chickenshit to open the door, but you kept at it. My people pointed guns at you and you didn’t start breaking limbs. Balls of steel like that deserves respect. So, yeah, I’m gonna be honest with you.”
Fair enough. I opened my mouth, but Clarissa appeared, a plate in hand brimming with salted pork. “A meal fit for a viking,” she said with a wink.
“Thank you.” I bowed my head in appreciation. As she settled next to Charles, hand on his inner thigh, I turned my attention back to him. “How are my siblings?”
He stared at me in silence for a moment before he smiled softly. “They’re good, man.” His voice was low in tone, but warm and rich. “They’re really good. Your brother, he’s still shacked up with that lady. I don’t know how they’re doing, relationship-wise, but they’re still together. He’s working hard, too. A lot of money flowing his way, and not just from that oil thing. He’s got a great contract with the Dragon’s Teeth now, and there’s, like, a ton of people working for him.
“And your sister? She’s a full Warden now.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t known that I’d been worrying over if she’d gotten in trouble or not until that weight was lifted from my shoulders.
“She’s in a response team, and they’re doing really good. Four bags already, and they’re singing her praises to anyone who will listen. None of the stuff involving you has slowed her down in the slightest. She’s really spreading her wings and showing the world what she’s made of.
“The photos that I’ve seen though…” He shook his head. “I think she misses you. You can just sort of see it in her eyes. But she’s pushing on, and if you lay them out chronologically, she’s getting better. Not fast, but… She’s coping.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slow. Good. At least something was going right. “Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” When I opened my eyes, the world was a little misty.
Charles smiled a little. “In your eyes, we’re even. I get that.”
“I don’t think you could have given me a better gift.”
Clarissa rose slowly and moved over to me, leaning over to give me a gentle hug. I gladly accepted it. For once, I felt at peace. So long as they were okay, that’s all that mattered.
As she pulled away, I sniffled and blinked rapidly. “Okay, let’s… Let’s, uh, change the subject, okay?”
Clarissa nodded as she settled next to Charles again. “Alright. Since I cooked for you, is there any chance you can do me a favor?”
“What’s up?” I asked as I finally started cutting my meat.
She leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s Saint Louis like?”
Charles groaned, but I couldn’t help but laugh.