I was only dimly aware of the passage of time. Night became day to a gentle hand rubbing my back. Most of the day was spent mostly by myself, with the occasional visit from the others. John had come for a while, reading his book as ever, only this time he was reading directly to me. He hadn’t said anything else, thankfully. Unlike the others, he knew that simple words weren’t going to help me in the slightest.
Sleep occasionally came, but I got little out of it. I usually woke up feeling… something. I usually at least knew that I’d had some sort of dream, but now… Now there was nothing. Just a feeling of emptiness.
Day became night. Night became day. It all blurred together. They brought me food, but I didn’t have any appetite. I wished that they would have just left me alone.
Everything they said, no matter how minor, just made something else come to mind. There wasn’t a filter at all, no way to keep the barrage from hitting me. Emi would try and smile at me, and that brought the Matron to mind. That image melded into a young Sarah standing there, looking scared to death over the possibility of her killing everyone, her arm hanging at an odd angle. And that forced the image of a young girl’s arm flopping as a wildling ran with it, the rest of her body nowhere in sight.
Everything was a failure. I’d failed Sarah, I’d failed Chris. The Matron, Greg, Gina, Michael, Jenny, Miss Wang, Ryo… God, and Emi used that name while masquerading as my sister! I’d buried that entire relationship so deep because of the pain that calling her that didn’t even register in my brain. Ryo had become a nameless, faceless void, less of a person and more of just knowledge that I’d had a girlfriend back at school from my time in dance.
Everything flowed together in a new type of pain and agony that made time blur. I wasn’t sure how many days passed where the only sounds that I’d make were the occasional sob. I’d rather pretend that I didn’t have broken ribs again than to feel this. Pain of the body was so much easier to deal with. I couldn’t suppress any of this.
It was dark out as I heard Kathy bitterly grumble “Men” before opening my door. I didn’t look up. I’d curled myself up in my bed so that I didn’t have to look at anyone. They’d have to work to get themselves between the bed and the wall.
It took me by surprise, then, when I felt the covers lift and her slide in behind me. Her arm wrapped around me, her forehead found the back of my neck, and her body melded against mine. I waited for something more as echoes of adults yelling at Sarah, Chris and I echoed through my mind. They never liked the way that the three of us slept together. If wasn’t like Ryo
and I, it was just… us. Nothing perverted.
But I could feel her heartbeat, and the only thing that I could actually hear was her calm, even breathing. Tense muscles relaxed slowly. Bit by bit, I found myself relaxing, relaxing tension that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding. First my calves, then my shoulders. My gut, my jaw. There were no tears, just a strange letting go.
I wasn’t sure how long we’d laid there like that. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours. Eventually, though, words found me. “Wha…” My voice sounded strange; small and alien even to me. “What are you doing?”
“Mmm.” Somehow, she didn’t move. “We were talking about you, and I remembered that you and Sarah, and Chris I guess, would curl up and sleep together. John said that it made sense, that you’re a physical person, so it was probably the most comforting thing for you.”
My mind made a leap of logic. “So, you got upset that he never said anything, he shrugged and said that you never asked, you asked why he didn’t do it, and he had a pathetic excuse.”
Her breath was hot against my back as she chuckled to herself. “I thought I was cursing soft enough that you wouldn’t hear.”
“I’ve got… selectively good hearing.”
“Good. I’d chew you out if you made it sound like you heard everything. I wanted Emi to do this, because she has a closer bond with you than me, but John talked her out of it.”
When I didn’t respond, she tried again. “Whatcha thinkin’ about?”
“…The caravan. No… No, not quite. Amy. She… We… We kind of were an item. Kind of.”
“Tell me about her,” Kathy said softly.
What was there to say? “She… was my boss on the caravan, kind of. Her dad had the contract, but she was his partner on it. She had a crush on me for almost two years. It wasn’t until we were trying to sell Chris’ skills to Tattletale that she told… Well, she didn’t so much of tell me that she still had a crush, as she kissed me. I… kissed her back, and after that, we were a couple.
“And in a matter of days, I was getting whisked off to St. Louis. After that, I get back, and Agamemnon happened. She stayed with me until I woke up…”
I took a slow breath as my throat tightened. “She came to me one night, saying that she had to go back. She and her dad had to eat, and that meant keeping the contracts going. That I understood. What I didn’t understand was when she pushed me into the bed.”
I felt my cheeks getting warm. “I’m… One prior, uh, encounter, I guess… I had more experience than her, but, uh…”
“Experience doesn’t mean competence?” Kathy asked knowingly.
“Yeah. Pretty much. It was awkward and blundering, but… she seemed to enjoy it.”
“What about you?”
I frowned a little, looking down. “Sex is alright, I guess? There’s a brief moment where it feels good, but… I don’t know. I was attracted to her, but like I said, I was only attracted to her after she let me know that she was into me. Sex itself feels good, but it… I dunno. I get as much out of sparring, a good heavy run, or even…” I didn’t want to admit just how much fighting made me feel alive. My body would tingle ever so slightly, my chest would feel like it was swelling, and afterwards, I felt so confident.
It was endorphins. The body uses both victory and defeat to educate a person. Losing was crushing, and winning was such a thrill. I’d seen pugilists who were battered until neither eye could really open, having pushed their bodies to the absolute limit for fifteen or twenty rounds, or more. Five minutes out of the ring, so often they’d be bouncing around and giddy. And the loser was devastated.
I didn’t like hurting people, so I focused on the sparring. I wasn’t a psychopath.
Words began to flow out of my mouth randomly. “I’ve never really understood why people find me attractive. I don’t feel attractive. I mean, I get it, scars are sexy. And I get it, I’m physically fit. But my hair’s a mess and always will be, my nose is weird, my ears aren’t that even, I don’t have that chiseled look–”
“Guys bite their cheeks to get that,” Kathy said, interrupting me. “They suck their cheeks in and bite them to hold them there. That’s how they get that chiseled look. The effect’s pretty much ruined as soon as they smile or talk.”
I blinked. “How… How do you know that?”
“Because girls do the same thing.” She paused for a breath. “I’m sorry that you never got to really say goodbye.”
“I did,” I blurted out, my body tightening again. “After the, uh, second time, while we were laying there, she… She admitted that she was ending it. That she had to end it. That it was one thing when we were fighting side by side, but she… She couldn’t spend the rest of her life while I was off on a mission, wondering if I was going to come home or not, or what condition I’d come home in.”
“Because you were going to be a Warden.” Kathy said it as a statement, not as a question.
“Yeah. Because I’m the kind of guy who, uh, when someone’s in trouble, I go running, no matter how bad it is. I’m the kind of guy who walks into St. Louis without any sort of powers to back him up.”
“I don’t think that you need pow–”
My hand grabbed her wrist as anger exploded in me. “Don’t.” I rolled over to face her, but there wasn’t even a hint of fear in her eyes. That was funny, because this was real rage. Not the kind of anger that made me flip out and maim people, but the kind that spread through your chest and into your bones until you could act with absolute clarity. Where you could talk, be rational, and still kill every mother fucker who ever lived.
“Don’t you dare. You have no idea, Kathy. You have no fucking clue. You all have a serious edge over me.”
“And the fact that I can do as well as I do? It’s not like a power, it’s not like something that just happened one day. It’s almost two decades of grueling work, every single day. Every. Single. Day. No days off, not even when I was trapped in a hospital bed. I had to push myself harder than everyone else. Why? Because I didn’t trigger.
“You don’t even know what kind of advantage you have because you’re living in it. I have to work four times harder for half the respect. Paras take me on, and they don’t hesitate, because I’m not triggered. Anyone who is triggered, no matter how small the power, gets more consideration than me. To keep up with Sarah, I had to work my ass off every fucking day. If I was gonna be at her side in the Wardens, I had to keep up the threat and prove to the world that I was worth consideration.
“Here, with you? Oh, you better damn well believe that I have to fight to keep up the threat even more. I’ve got a rep now, and if even one person suspects for a moment that I’m not the scariest asshole alive, I’ve got to prove it. And do you know what that means?”
“It means fighting,” Kathy said in a weak voice.
“Yeah. And just like anything, you’ve got to put yourself through hell if you wanna be good at it. You all lie about who you are, spreading those lies so easily, even here. But you have to, you can’t afford to be soft all winter. You’re con artists, so you’ve got to keep yourselves sharp at that sort of thing. And I’m the same way, but my specialty? My specialty ends lives.”
“To save others. Jordan, you’ve done–”
“Stop it!” I barked. “I don’t wanna hear that same old bullshit, because I have killed! People have died because of me, Kathy.”
I shook my head. “Those people there? It was going to happen some time. Some time, the person responsible was gonna pull the trigger and kill everyone in that town. Remove their heads of everyone.” She winced, and for some odd reason, I jumped on it. “Imagine waking up one morning and you’re surrounded by decapitated bodies. You can’t even process it. Every new body gets more and more surreal. People that you were drinking with a few hours ago, lying there dead. It makes your mind kind of… shut off.
“But there was a part of me that knew that I was left alive for a reason.
“It wasn’t just because I haven’t triggered. Sure, that’s part of it. I made a damn handy scapegoat. But it was a silent message to me. ‘We can do this to the most powerful city in the world, where fights break out on a daily bases with enough force to scour the landscape… Now what do you think we can do to your family? To Sarah, Chris, Tim and Tabby? What can we do to them?’
“I don’t know who did it, but they did it then because I was there. Because they could manipulate me without saying a word. So, yeah, I was responsible for their deaths there.”
Kathy stayed silent, thankfully.
“There’s more than that, too. Fighting when someone attacks you, that I’m okay with. When it’s your life or theirs, everything’s in a different light. But Greg taught me a lot of stuff, stuff that I swore that I’d never use. Like how to punch someone so that I bruise their heart. Death isn’t instant, but if it isn’t taken care of, it’s guaranteed. Blood flows into the sack that surrounds the heart, filling it, keeping it from being able to beat as efficiently. It may take days, but they die all the same.
“And I did that to one of the guys pretending to be me.” I shook my head, an awkward movement with the way that we were laying on my full-sized bed. “He didn’t even attack me or anything. I was just… so pissed off that I did it. And the sad part?”
I laughed a little, but it sounded almost like a sob.
“You know, when I left New Fairfax, my main thought was just that I had to leave. I wasn’t really thinking. I’d gone numb. But there was a part of me… A sick sad part that grew stronger after I’d teleported, as the real gravity of what happened began to sink in, one that I buried before I even knew what I was feeling… That part of me was hopeful. That this would finally be the stress that I needed to trigger.
“Even now, with every horrible, thoughtless, stupid thing that I’ve ever done washing over me… I’m hopeful. It’s part of the reason why I suppressed everything, you know? I wanted every trauma to be fresh, as painful as possible. And because if I ever released completely… If I ever felt all the pain and guilt and terror and everything, all at once… I might trigger.
“You have no idea, Kathy. No idea at all what, even now, I’d give to trigger. What I’d do to become a para. No idea.”
Kathy frowned a little. Let her fucking talk. Let her fucking try and say something to cheer me up. I’d break that down, too. I’d destroy every argument that she gave me. I’d–
“You’d crack my skull open,” she said weakly, not taking her eyes off of mine. “You’d rip out my brain and try and hunt for the part of my brain that handles my powers.” The Corona Pollentia and the Gemma. “Then you’d get out your knife, cut open your own skull, and jam it into your own. And if that didn’t work, you’d do it to the others until it did.”
I stared at her in confusion as the anger ebbed out of me. “No… No, I’d never–”
“I know.” I wished she’d take her eyes off me. They suddenly hurt to be staring at me like that. So sad. “You’d never. But after that job that we did for Nexus, when we were taking you to that hackjob–” Hack Job, a unique fusion of Hatchet Face and Oni Lee created by Bonesaw. “–you started talking. Rambling, really. You were feverish and out of it, and you described exactly what you’d do us in order to trigger. You spoke a lot, then, but most of it didn’t make sense. The main thing, though, was the envy, and how you’d butcher us in order to become like us.”
“No,” I said feebly.
“You’re my friends.”
Her eyes became even more sad. “Are we? I think there’s a part of you that wonders about that. That feels like we’re just using you. That hates us for what we’ve made you do and become.
“At the end of the day, Jordan. You’ve lived your whole life towards becoming a Warden, a hero. You could have gone off and lived a peaceful life. Set up a homestead somewhere — you were definitely kitted out for it. You could have left it all behind and…”
She shook her head a little. “And then we showed up. We showed up and dragged you into a lifestyle that you’d spent your whole life avoiding. And you found out that you were good at it. You were a natural from the get-go, even though you were puking all the time, you could weave the lies like the rest of us. Once we gave you a name, you responded instantly, without the slightest hesitation.
“And I think that there’s a part of you that hates us for it.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say, not with my chest hurting the way that it did. It was like someone had run me through with a serrated broadsword.
Kathy paused for a moment, then smiled a little. “Sort of like how I hated you for a while for how you changed us. We didn’t fight before you. We played things smart and avoided them. Hell, we’ve been here when wildlings attacked before. What did we do? We stayed at work, where it was safe, and lt others do the fighting.
“Now look at us. The bell rings and we’re on our feet and chasing after you without a second thought. We’re jumping into the thick of it without any hesitation at all. We aren’t just taking on people who attack us, either. We’re taking on raiders, we’re taking on the scum of the earth… Hell, how many times have we fought Wardens now?”
“‘re ‘ood ebble,” I made out softly.
“You’re good people. You aren’t evil. John doesn’t have a mustache, and even if he did, he wouldn’t twirl it.” I still didn’t know what that phrase meant, but I knew the meaning behind it. “You aren’t villains or anything. You’re just… people. With flaws and strengths.”
That made Kathy smile a bit. “Having a hero around helps.”
I sighed softly. “I’m no hero. I… I was, once upon a time, though. Right before I met you.”
She hesitated a moment before speaking again. When she did, it was with genuine curiosity. “Tell me about it.”
“After New Fairfax, I ended up in… Some universe. I don’t know which one. But it was across the ocean. I ended up staying with this couple, Nathan and Taylor, who were working for Defiant and Dragon. Nathan helped them design the armor for the Dragon’s Teeth, which they’d send off to Masamune for mass production. Then Taylor, she was building weather and communication satellites.”
Tim’s words about heroes echoed in the back of my head.
“While I was staying with them, I worked in maintenance for the facility that was making them. I was building satellites, Kathy. No… No, I wasn’t building them. I was giving them the ability to build them. I was making or helping to keep the machinery running that was making them. When one of them blew, I walked into a room flooded with gas in order to shut off the valves.
“Think about how many people have died in Gimmel and the other Earths because they didn’t know that a hurricane or something was on the way. I was helping to save so many lives, and…”
I looked down, not wanting to see her face any more. God, I was such an idiot.
“…And they knew that I was probably going to leave in the spring. They knew that, but they were going to ask me to stay. But I was so closed-minded that I left.”
Kathy’s hand reached out to gently touch my cheek. It wasn’t like a lover’s caress or anything. It reminded me of… something. Something warm and loving that I couldn’t put my finger on.
“Well. I can say that you’re still the most heroic person that I’ve ever met. It takes a special sort of person to do the things that you do. So fearless and brave when it’s needed, even if you work yourself up until you chuck your biscuits. And, I need you.”
I looked up at her, and she chuckled a little.
“That came out sounding way different than what I thought it would, but it doesn’t change the fact that… I need your help. I… I haven’t been able to do much in the past, but… Well, there isn’t a synagogue, or even a rabbi here. There isn’t much in the way of religion at all, honestly. I don’t think that there’s a church or anything. But there is a huge emphasis put on Christmas. The whole gift giving and making people’s days more bright thing.
“That’s something that I can get behind, yeah?”
I nodded a little. “You wanna do it like back home?”
“Back at the Orphanage, yeah. I wanna do something grand for folks. They’ve been good to us. And… I’ll be honest, you’re right. I didn’t leave the Orphanage under the best of circumstances. But I’ve still got friends from back then that I get in touch with on occasion.”
Ah, that explained it. “Like to find out about me?”
That made her chuckle a little. “You’re observant when you aren’t forcing yourself not to think about it, you know that? What tipped you off?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “What you say about me and Chris or me and Sarah is pretty close, but… It’s not quite right. Like, you heard about it from someone who saw it from a distance. I mean, I do think that you’re from the Orphanage. The glee that you had over the soda was too real not to be, but I was pretty sure that you didn’t know me.”
She seemed honestly amused by that. “Well, just goes to show ya. I can fool most people, but not you. You’re right, I did ask my friends about you, and they filled me in. I think I might have seen you… maybe three times? Total? I wasn’t one of the kids who liked to hang around the monument.
“But they also told me about the year that you had to stay at the Orphanage for Christmas. Something that I’m still not very happy about, by the way.” Why not? I didn’t understand, but she kept talking. “How you went balls to the wall on it, since you didn’t have any classes. And I wanna do something great this year, but I don’t know what. Halloween is this week, so we’ve got almost two months to come up with something fuckawesome. Think you can help?”
I lowered my head a little. “Not… Not yet. Can you give me a little time, please?”
Her thumb stroked my cheek before she pulled her hand away. “Take your time. Just… I could really use your help, and I… I think that you need to get out of your head. Plus, we could really use you at the restaurant. We didn’t realize exactly how much you did until you weren’t there. John’s positively whining.”
My lips twitched towards a smile, but that was it. “I’ll try and hurry, then.”
“That’s all I ask.” She lazily got out of the bed. “We’re worried about you, kid, but take all the time you need, alright? You want me to get you some food?”
I shook my head.
“Alright. Then… Try and get out and exercise or something, okay? I may not like how hard you push yourself, but… I think I get it now.”
With that, she quietly left me to my own mind and emotions. I laid there for who knew how long, just letting everything wash over me. What she’d said. Wondering what I’d said. I’d threatened them with horrible death for my own gain, and they just chalked it up to me being feverish.
She was right. I did hate them for the life that I had to lead now. But on the other hand? They were good friends. Even with all their lies and faults.
Eventually, when the sounds of the hotel died down and outside wasn’t any better, I slowly made my way to my feet. I probably should have put on shoes or even a shirt, but I didn’t care. I quietly made my way downstairs and out the back door, to where I could see John’s thin hand-rolled cigarette stubs. Pins, he called them. I just thought they smelled funny.
I took a deep breath, letting the cool night air in. Looking up, I couldn’t see as many stars as I usually could in a city — too much light pollution here. But it didn’t matter. I found a star and focused on it.
“I’ve been playing your game for all my life. So much pain and misery from it. Still so much pain and misery from it. But… I’m done. I get it now. Some people? They just don’t trigger, and I guess that I’m one of them. After everything that I’ve been through, I’m just not worthy. And you know what?
“Fuck you. I offered you all everything. Every single fucking thing that I had. I would have given my mind and body over to you completely. I would have let them fiddle with my head, do to me what they did to Weaver to turn her into Khepri. Whatever. You could have had me. But I’m done. No amount of pain or trauma’s gonna do it, I guess. So fuck you. Fuck all of you. Every. Last. One.”