I clipped the teleporter back on my belt, feeling like a weight had been lifted from my chest. Valkyrie actually let us leave. It was hard to believe. The five of us had assaulted a city, no matter how well poorly-guarded, taken out all of the hostiles, sent a clear statement, and then stared Valkyrie in the face and essentially told her to fuck off. And we’d gotten away with it.
I turned to my companions. What a sight we were, too. The only one of us that wasn’t covered in blood was Emi. Kathy was completely coated in blood and gore…
…and her eyes were glazed over, and her lips were turning blue.
“Emi,” I said firmly as I handed my halberd to John. “Door.”
“What’s going on?” Brenda made out through clenched teeth. She’d probably pushed herself to the limit and couldn’t stand to remove the cloth over her eyes even if there was an emergency.
Emi pounded on the door three times before moving to the window. She put her hands on the windowsill and jumped, then teleported through.
“I don’t know yet,” I said soothingly. “No trouble, though. We’re fine. We’re safe.” Ish. Safe-ish. Right now, I wasn’t putting any money on perfectly safe.
As I gently scooped up Kathy, she offered not the slightest bit of resistance. She was going deep into shock. I turned as the door opened, revealing Emi and behind her, one of my employees.
“What’s going–oh dear Lord.” The man’s eyes went wide as he took in the situation. “Basement,” he said quickly before turning and running for the living room. “Aurora! Get Michelle, now! Bossman’s here and I think we need her!”
As I stepped inside, I could only hear the front door slamming shut. Small favors. I hurried downstairs, careful for Kathy. Right now, I was more and more thankful that I’d hired these four. I could handle any meatball surgery that I might have to do, but the guy seemed to think that Michelle could help. If so, then they’d be a godsend. If nothing else, having the house and a place to work would be good enough.
They had moved fast on setting up the basement to be an infirmary. There were cots with curtains around them, a table with a metal top and a light over it, shelves with instruments and books on them, and even a cooler with a few odds and ends in it. They’d even gone so far as to set up a water heater and a sink.
Emi moved to a shelf and grabbed a sheet, quickly tossing it over the apparent operating table. As I set Kathy down, the man hurried to fill a bowl with water. He set it on the table next to me, only for John to lay a hand on his shoulder.
“A little privacy for the moment, Jim? At least turn your back.”
I turned my full attention to Kathy, getting the bandannas off of her head. I heard people talking behind me, but they were indistinct as I focused on the task at hand. I didn’t see any head wounds, and feeling the back of her head didn’t come back with blood.
I tore my gloves off and began unbuttoning Kathy’s shirt, though I gave up after a couple of buttons and tore it open, pulling the fabric aside even before loose buttons hit the ground. Even her bra was bloodstained, but it appeared to be what soaked through her outer shirt. Her body was limp as I half-rolled her onto side to check her back.
She was streaked with blood, but no wounds. Without hesitation, I unbuttoned and pulled down her pants. Nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief. No wounds. None at all.
“She’s in shock,” I said calmly, moving to unlace her boots. “Can someone work on cleaning her up? Get another sheet and something to prop up her feet with.”
Emi moved to get her shirt off of her as Jim moved to the shelves again. “Is she hurt?” he asked.
“No,” I said with a sigh of relief. “She just had a rough spot and her brain’s resetting. Trying to adjust to what happened.”
John stopped Jim again, frowning. “What did I just say about privacy?”
Jim’s jaw set, but he turned away from us, holding out a sheet and a pillow. “Jesus, grow up, man.”
I didn’t need this dick swinging. “Jim, do as he says. Keep your back turned until we’re done. John, he’s just trying to help, cut him some slack, alright? Besides, he knows this setup better than we do.” I got Kathy’s boots off, followed by her pants. A few moments later, her underwear as well — some blood had gotten on them.
Emi had gotten her upper body stripped. I called for washclothes, and Jim retrieved them for us, keeping his back away. Within minutes, the two of us had Kathy cleaned up, the sheet underneath her switched, her feet propped up, and another sheet on top of her.
Only then did I let myself relax.
“Is she going to be okay?” Brenda asked in a tiny voice.
I smiled warmly as I moved to her, gently laying my hands on her shoulders. She might not be able to see it, but she’d be able to hear it in my voice. “She’s going to be fine. I promise. She just… needs some time.” I finally noticed a chair and guided her towards it. “Sit, relax.”
As soon as she was settled, I moved over to Jim. Priorities. “Thanks for the assist.”
Jim tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. “Sorry about, uh…”
“Relax. You were trying to help. John was just worried about her modesty is all.” That was my best guess, anyway. “You responded quick, and did as I asked without any hesitation. You did real good.”
Jim smiled a little. “We, uh… We got some books. Homesteader’s Medicine, had some textbooks shipped out from the Orphanage. We pretty much wiped out our funds setting this place up, so Michelle and I have been studying.”
John moved over to gently clap him on the shoulder, moving the lower bandanna to smile a little. “Hey, thanks. I wasn’t sure if you were a perv or something. I wasn’t even thinking about… Well…”
Jim chuckled a little. I could hear footsteps above us, but he didn’t seem worried. “It’s cool. Just… I got a wife, you know? She’d kill me if I looked at a girl like that.”
A woman, presumably Michelle, came down the stairs, a look of panic on her face. Fortunately, Emi intercepted her. “False alarm. Turns out we’re fine.”
Michelle let out a sigh of relief, but I looked around everyone. “Are we? Anyone hurt?”
Emi and Brenda shook their heads, but John flashed me a hesitant smile. “A bit of ache, uh, all over from when I splatted that guy, but I’m not hurt-hurt. Just, uh…” He glanced to Jim. “You said that you all wiped yourselves out. By any chance–”
“Clothes?” Jim guessed, and John nodded. “Yeah, we picked some up. No idea if they’ll fit or not, but…”
“That’s fine. I’d just rather get changed out of this.” He gestured to his bloodstained clothes. Jim grinned and nodded once before heading up the stairs.
“Good idea,” I said with a nod. “It’d be best if we all were cleaned up before she comes out of it.” I looked to Michelle. “Could I trouble you to make some tea for all of us? With honey added?”
“Yeah, sure.” She smiled at me a little. “Aurora’s getting Dave, so they should be here soon.”
With that, we separated. As Michelle made tea and Jim got the clothes, I brought down enough chairs for all of us. By the time that I had them down, Kathy’s eyes were closed and her breathing had gone deep. Good.
As soon as we were changed, using the curtained rooms for privacy, I snagged John. “You’ve known Kathy longer than any of us. Why don’t you sit next to her.” I nodded to the chair on the opposite side of Kathy, which got a strange look out of John. “Please. Trust me.”
With a sigh, he settled down. Soon enough, all of us were relaxing, Dave and Michelle serving us tea and crackers.
Emi looked at Aurora. “You all knew about the other villages, didn’t you? The ones being attacked by Jordan.”
Aurora paused at the sudden question, looking uncomfortable. “Yes?”
“It wasn’t me,” I said flatly. “It was someone pretending to be me. Doing that shit. There’s apparently multiple groups of people doing stuff like that, but we just took care of the ones shaking down entire villages.”
A silence filled the room as my four employees contemplated this. Had I just fucked up? Crap. For lack of something else to do, I moved to sip my tea.
“Helmet,” John reminded me. I’d honestly forgotten that I was wearing it. With a sheepish chuckle, I removed the portion that covered my mouth and took a sip.
“Listen,” Emi said bluntly. “No matter what else Jordan may or may not have done, there’s some things that you can count on. He’s not a rapist, first of all. And if he attacks a village? They’re going to be able to rebuild, the only people who die are the ones that he’s targeting, or there won’t be more than a handful of people alive.
The four employees didn’t look completely convinced. Grand. I sighed softly. Might as well be honest with them. Well, as honest as I could be.
“New Fairfax was an isolated incident. I’ve killed a few people since then, but they’ve had it coming to them. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not… good at the bad guy thing. But right now, it’s easier to let people think that I am. I can… We can do what we need to with less interference.”
“Like shut us down?” Dave asked carefully.
“Kind of.” I looked down at my tea, wishing it would cool off faster. “Listen, it’s… You were a side objective. A stepping stone to something else. Part of that was playing nice with Nexus, making sure that we don’t end up on his shit list. He’d send professionals after us, and I’m not sure that we could stand up to them.
“There’s been a lot of folks who have been stepping stones on our way to our goals. You all… You were straight up with me, didn’t yank my chain, and capitulated the moment you realized who I was. There wasn’t any posturing or playing of games. That’s part of why you all are valuable to me. I don’t feel like I have to put pressure on you just for you to do the most simple of things.”
“You hired us because you think we’re spineless,” Aurora said. I wasn’t sure what to make of her tone.
“No, I hired you because I think you’re smart.” I leaned back in my chair. “I walked into Saint Louis and back. I got ambushed by the very mercs hired to escort us on the way back to Twain. I stared down Agamemnon. I’m the only survivor of New Fairfax.
“No matter what else I may or may not have done, I think those things make me worth consideration. And I’d like to believe that people should realize that crossing me is not a wise move. Don’t you agree?”
They were silent for a long moment before Michelle spoke up. “So the people who were attacking villages–?”
“Dead,” John interrupted. “I watched Jordan end the leader myself. I promise you, we may be many things, but none of us are rapists.”
“Speaking of which,” Emi said, looking at me. “I thought your friend said that they were all male?”
“You noticed that, too.” I frowned a little. “Possibly a Changer, or maybe a new recruit. I’m not sure. I wish we could have gotten more answers… If we’re lucky, Valkyrie will claim the parahumans, get answers of them, and then Gi… And then my friend can slip some to us.”
Brenda sighed. “No offense, Jordan, but I didn’t like her much.”
“She’s a hard person to like,” I admitted. I didn’t have much else to add, and apparently neither did anyone else, because we all fell into a silence for a time.
Great, I’d messed up the conversation again. We all seemed perfectly content to sit there and sip our tea in silence, but I could feel a weird weight in the air, like everyone was waiting for a good change of subject to come up. Instead, there was nothing for anyone.
In a way, I decided, it was a good thing. We’d had trouble in the past, where things had gone hairy, but either they’d always been us on the defense, or we hadn’t really hurt anyone. Well, hadn’t killed anyone. Giving them time to process and think about what happened would help them sort it all out in their heads, help them cope with it. And if they needed any help coming to grips with what had happened, I’d gladly be here for any of them.
We sat there for probably half an hour before Kathy finally groaned softly, her eyes opening.
“Hey,” John said, taking her hand.
Kathy turned to look at him, then looked around at the rest of us. When she spoke, her tone was flat and almost accusing. “Why am I naked?”
Emi snorted, and Jim quickly began ushering my employees out. Good man. He must have remembered the tension between John and him earlier.
“We thought you might be hurt,” John said comfortingly as I replaced the portion of the helmet that covered my mouth and removed the helmet. “We had to check you out.”
“I’m fine. He didn’t get me at all.”
“Kathy,” I said softly, and she turned her head to look at me. “I know that it’s uncomfortable, but I need you to tell me what happened.”
“I bumped into one of the bastards,” she said simply. “Before he could shoot me, I got him.”
I shook my head. “No. I need you to tell me the whole story, from the time that we began the op. Step-by-step, please. All the details.”
Kathy stared at me for a long moment, uncomfortable. Finally, she looked up at the basement ceiling and began talking in slow, a measured voice.
“As soon as you said copacetic, we ran for the wall. John helped me over it, then jumped over himself. While I climbed down, John went for the east gate. Everything was surprisingly easy. I saw one dude heading for the wall, and I hid around the corner. His leather armor was still open, so I slit his throat and stabbed him in the chest a couple of times.”
Huh. She hadn’t mentioned that. I’d have to remember to talk to them all more about keeping me updated properly over the radio. Then again, we needed to have a nice, long talk about communication protocols, period.
“Then there were gunshots, so I went your way. When they mentioned a runner, I started to hurry. I figured that if I could find a good place outside of the inn, I could intercept him when he got there and blast him. Maybe keep nimrod inside the inn if he decided to run, too.
“As I was running, though, my bandanna slid down over my eyes. It was soaked in sweat, making them sting. I got it back up just in time to almost…”
She trailed off, closing her eyes for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was low and measured. “I almost slammed into a dude. He had a gun in his hand, but we were both surprised. I fell to my knees right next to him, and… I only had a moment, so I reacted instinctively.”
She fell silent, eyes focused on the ceiling, so I gave her a verbal nudge. “You shot him with your power?”
Kathy shook her head a little. “No. I’ve… I’ve had to kill a couple of times before. I’ve never, you know, liked it, but I didn’t mind it with these bastards. Once or twice I’ve knifed a person, once I had to shoot them with my power. But that’s always been, uh… It’s always been at range.
“This was too close, though, so I reacted by instinct. I flopped onto my back, and used my power as hard as I could.” I saw her move underneath the sheet, a hand rubbing at her arm. I knew that there was an element of physical strain when she used her power. The more powerful it was, the harder the strain. She must have really put her all into it.
“I got him about the kneecaps, and he fell. I… I didnt get all of him, just, like, just half of him. He fell into the disk, and…” Her eyes closeed, but I doubted that it was doing anything to block out what she was seeing.
“It’s one thing to slit a guy’s throat. Sure, there’s a spurt of blood, but… But it’s nothing like that. I was having trouble maintaining my power, so it wasn’t like a full stream. It kept on flickering in and out insanely fast. It was like… Like putting someone through a blender. Blood and chunks of him were going everywhere. He couldn’t even get a scream out as he fell into it, but for a brief moment, he just had this look of…
“It wasn’t pain. It was like, the pain hadn’t registered yet. But, like, he knew what was happening, and he was scared. Like, he couldn’t do anything to stop it, one of his hands was already gone, but there was this fear on his face. And then his face was all over me.”
Her voice turned small. “What was left of it.”
I let her be silent for a long moment before I spoke. It was important to keep this going. “He was going to attack you.”
“Yeah,” she said weakly.
“He had a gun. If he would have shot you, it’d be all over.”
“You reacted by instinct. You had no control over what happened.”
This time, she didn’t answer. Okay, that was less good. Time to take a step back and go back to forward momentum. “Alright, what happened next?”
She didn’t say anything for a long moment. John gave her hand a comforting squeeze, and that seemed to give her at least some of her strength back. “Brenda was shooting, and I could see that wannabe running. He’d start to go one way, and then there would be a plume of smoke in front of his feet and he’d scramble again. By the time that I got…
“By the time that I got what was left of the guy’s body off of me and stood up, Emi was flickering around him.” She turned to look at Emi. “You’re lucky that you were teleporting so fast that he couldn’t use his power on you.”
“Yeah,” Emi said, glancing to me. “Betcha that you’re proud of me for that.”
“Side effect of your power,” I said quickly. “I’ll go into it here in a bit.” There was a time and a place for everything.
But Kathy was shaking her head. “Things get… fuzzy after that.”
That’s when she’d gone into shock. Right. Okay, I’d studied this in one of my classes, though which one was beyond me. I had to address the source of trauma and help her to rationalize it, come to grips with it. I opened my mouth, but she cut me off, not even looking at me.
“I want a vote.”
John glanced at me, a worried expression on his face. “Hey, uh, Kath. I don’t really think now is the right time–”
“Fuck you.” Her eyes screwed up shut. “I want a goddamn vote. I know which way I’m voting, but I don’t care the results. We vote on shit. Everyone gets an equal say, and if it goes against me, fine, whatever. I can deal. But after that… I think we’re going to have a lot more shit come down on our heads because of him. Does he stay, or does he go? I say, go.”
I blinked, trying to put together what she was talking about. Everyone was already dead, or in the custody of the Wardens. What was with this stay or go?
“Abstain,” Brenda muttered, her hand still nursing her forehead.
“You always abstain,” Emi shot at her.
“Right now I can’t think straight enough to vote,” Brenda snapped back. “It’s hard enough keeping the tea down.”
Emi frowned a little, guilt creeping into her posture. It was easy to forget that Brenda’s power came at a price. Quickly, though, Emi looked to me. “I’m voting stay.”
Wait, what was going on? My heart felt heavy in my chest, and a strange numbness ran through my right arm.
“I hate to admit it,” John said slowly, “but I’m voting stay as well.” He tilted his head, looking at Kathy sympathetically. “We’ve dealt with this group, and though Jordan could have made it more clear to the Wardens, I don’t think people are going to put us in a position where we have to do that again.”
Wait, were they talking about… leaving me? I felt like someone had torn a hole in my chest with an oak tree.
“And yeah, we might have to deal with Wardens again, but honestly? After this, we shouldn’t have to worry about assaulting people who are pretending to be Jordan. Plus, I’m fairly certain that we can use this to our advantage to avoid fights in the future.”
Kathy sighed, and after a moment, she looked over to me. “Sorry, I just…”
“It’s cool,” I said with a nod, forcing a soft smile to my face. “You aren’t comfortable with what happened, and you had to make your opinion heard. I get it. No stress. You’re still my friend.”
Her expression went odd for a moment, but after some hesitation, she smiled at me. “You all are drinking something. Could I con you into getting some for me? My throat’s dry.”
I rose quickly, surprised that I didn’t even have to put effort into the smile. “No prob. I’ll be back in a few.”
I took the stairs easy, moving into the kitchen. Sadly, the tea pot was empty. That was fine by me. I spent a moment filling it, listening to the soft murmuring in the other room from my employees. Keeping their distance for the moment. That was… Well, it wasn’t fine, but it was understandable.
With the pot on the fire, I moved back to the sink, leaning over it. Somehow, my elbows ended up on it, my hand running over my face. I didn’t think, I didn’t really even feel anything. I just… stayed like that for who knew how long. It wasn’t until I heard a small wimper of pain behind me that I looked up.
Brenda was at the top of the stairs, looking about ready to cry as she inched herself forward. Quickly, I hurried over to her. “You’ve pushed yourself too hard today. You should be resting.”
“Told…” She swallowed, and I gently took her arm. “Told them I had to use the restroom. I wanted… I wanted to make sure that you were okay. You normally don’t drink tea unless you’re eating.”
“I don’t,” I confessed. “I’m… I’m not going to lie and say I’m okay. I’m still angry, and that vote… I feel like I’ve let Kathy down. Dragging you all into this, I feel like I’ve let all of you down. But… I’m managing. I’ll find a way to make it up to you. I promise.”
Brenda giggled a little, but immediately regretted it. “You’re an odd guy.”
I smiled at her, even though she couldn’t see it. “I get that a lot.”
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
Brenda paused, taking a breath. Probably had to steady herself, with how bad her head was throbbing. “Why did you get hot soup and tea? I figured that you’d want the guy who owned the place to get as far away as possible.”
“I did want that,” I confessed. “But I had to keep up appearances. Plus, hot tea and soup both make handy weapons. I wasn’t sure what was coming, so I had to play it by ear. So… It was better to arm myself with scalding liquids in case I could use them than to leave him cowering in the back with nothing to do.”
I hadn’t even thought about it, I’d just done it.
“Smart,” she mused. We lapsed into an awkward silence for a moment before she spoke again. “That said, I do need to use the restroom…”
I lead her into the dining room, looking to… I forgot her name, but one of the female employees. “Can you help her to the bathroom, please?”
The woman smiled and nodded, taking Brenda from me. I waited in silence as they made their way up the stairs. As soon as they were out of earshot, though, I turned to the other three.
“Newspapers. From here on out, I want a copy of any newspaper article on me. I don’t care if it’s just a repeat of one in another paper, I want it.”
One of the men nodded. “You got it, boss.”
“What’s our sewing capabilities here?”
The three of them glanced around each other for a moment. Finally, the woman spoke up. “I know a gal who’s selling a push-pedal sewing machine.”
“And I can sew,” the skinnier guy said quickly.
“Good. I want to get something better than a bandanna for my people. Something with only the eyes visible.” I thought for a second as I fished coins out of a belt pocket. “Work with… Work with the Asian gal on a design.”
“Like a homemade baklava?” the skinnier guy asked.
“Balaclava,” the other corrected. “You eat baklava, you wear a balaclava.”
“Something like that,” I cut in. “Or a luchador mask or something. Each one should be a different color.” That would let me bark orders in a fight without using names. I set the money down on the table and unclipped the teleporter. 12% charge. Grand. I set it on the table, too. “This needs a recharge.”
“We’ll have to unplug something,” a man said. “The city only allows us so much power.”
I got the rest of the coins out from the pouch, setting them on the table. “Buy a turbine or solar cells or something. Something Twain-made, with batteries and a control unit. For now, unplug whatever you think is best.”
The woman frowned a little. “Boss, I hope I’m not crossing a line here, but is there something going on?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “I’m gonna go to war.”