There was something absolutely magical about a warm bed, especially when you knew that it was cold outside. It was the kind of thing that made you actively fight waking up. You’d start to drift into consciousness, then force yourself back down before you could actually make. On every level, you wanted to do whatever it took to enjoy it as long as possible.
“Christopher, get out here!”
Unless, of course, someone was screaming for your fiancé. Then you had to fight the urge to scream at them that you were sleeping, to shut the fuck up, and then nuzzle back into the heat factory.
“She can fuck off,” Chris murmured, showing the extent of his movement. Karen smiled softly to herself. She and Chris had… problems, but there were reasons why they were still together. It was the small moments that reminded her why they continued to fight through the difficult ones. The little smiles that he brought to her face.
And then the door was flung open. Karen could have cut the bitch.
“He was here,” Sarah said breathlessly.
Aaaaaaaaand there went staying in bed. Damn it. Chris bolted upright, accidentally flinging her off of him, suddenly wide awake. “Right, okay, uh… Give us a sec to get dressed.”
Karen couldn’t see Sarah, but after a moment the door closed again and Chris slid out of bed. That did it. Karen finally opened her eyes and looked at him. He’d lost a bit of his pudge, which she didn’t like all that much. She was told that it was healthier for him, but come on — a bit of pudge was cute. At least he wasn’t losing all of it.
By the time that she had her legs over the side of the bed, he’d pulled his pajama bottoms over his boxers and gotten a shirt on. After that, though, he sat on the edge of the bed, waiting semi-patiently as she changed from her nightgown to a pair of pajamas herself. Again, it was the little things. He wanted to hurry out and find out what was up, but since she was getting up herself, he was going to sit there and wait. And fidget.
The fidgeting was annoying, but she wasn’t going to say anything. He was making an effort, and even if it was irritating, she appreciated it. Or at least she told herself as she got dressed, trying to ignore the huge collage on the wall.
Once they were dressed, he all but flew out of the room. Had he become a Mover while she wasn’t looking? He’d better not — they’d lose a lot of money. She tried to keep up, but pausing halfway down the hall to yawn meant that she’d fallen behind.
By the time she made it to the living room, Chris was scurrying into the kitchen. Karen glanced at Sarah, who frowned and shook her head.
“Of course,” Karen said with a sigh.
“Told him that we shoulda left a note on the door.”
Karen didn’t wait for him to come out. Instead she cut through the kitchen, through the door into Jordan’s little apartment. Chris was standing in the middle of the room, next to the small table that was loaded with Christmas presents. His shoulders were slumped and his arms dangled uselessly.
This was one of the problems. She honestly couldn’t even begin to comprehend the relationship that the two had with Jordan. Sarah and Chris had fallen into a strange routine that was more like close friends who only need to talk once a month, while before the whole mess when Jordan had visited last time, they’d been disturbingly cuddly.
Tim and Tabby had tried several times to convince Chris to take this room, to give the two of them some privacy. Chris had adamantly refused, insisting that it stay Jordan’s until he returned. Karen had tried to get Sarah to help, but she’d only taken Chris’ side, though with far less talking and far more glaring.
Jordan’s absence did something to these two that she really didn’t understand. It was like he had been the glue that had held them together. Tim and Tabby said that they were returning to behavior that they’d had when Jordan had been in school, but…
Well, Chris was prone to a bit of obsession. He knew little about his birth parents, other than the fact that they had been Swedish immigrants to the US before Gold Morning, and that they’d died saving him. Not that he remembered that, of course — he’d suppressed it all. But his mild obsessive streak meant that he collected every Swedish movie and translated book that he could. He’d watch the movies with subtitles, listening to the language.
He once confessed to her that he wished he could have learned the language properly, but he never found anyone who could teach him.
The only time that she’d seen Chris close to violence was when Van Dorn, his entourage, and all of the Dragon’s Teeth in town had been set to come to dinner. He’d set about cooking, starting almost from sunup, with Karen making frequent trips to the store for him. All too often, though, what he had been cooking got him angry, livid even. It all had to be perfect, and in his eyes, it wasn’t. Twice, he’d almost thrown something.
Oh, the final results had tasted great. Meat melted in the mouth, the weird egg dish had been amazing, the solid pudding and its sauce had been almost addictive… But despite him being a perfect host, she could tell that he was disappointed with himself.
That same obsessive streak applied to his brother. Chris collected every article on Jordan that he could; the local Dragon’s Teeth helped him, collecting articles, sharing what intelligence they could, every image that they came across. All of it got posted obsessively on a wall of the bedroom as Chris figured out timelines, as he tried to reconstruct what Jordan was up to. It didn’t help that if there were two articles on one incident, one positive and one negative, only the positive one would make it to the wall, even if it had less information.
It was one of the sources of their problems. Nobody ever said that a relationship was going to be perfect, that they were going to match together like bread and butter. But he talked about his problems with her, and encouraged her to do the same with him. They’d settled into a routine where they would say “I know that I’m being stupid, but…” and leading into the problem by presenting it as humorously as possible. More than once, she’d complained about something that was bothering her, and he’d responded by putting his hands on his hips and saying “Well, that guy sounds like a prissy bitch.”
It was the little things that made her smile. Right now, she wasn’t smiling.
Instead, she wrapped an arm around his midsection, laying her head against his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Chris asked weakly. “Why didn’t he…? Why?”
“Well,” Karen said slowly. “I remember when he gave me my Christmas present early. Both Amy and I were kinda awkward since we didn’t have anything for him, but he didn’t care. I mean, he’s the sort of guy who doesn’t give two shits about getting presents.”
“Yeah,” he said dejectedly. “He’s about the giving.”
“Exactly. He just wanted to give you some joy, and didn’t even think that someone might want to do the same to him.” She nuzzled his shoulder. “Don’t feel bad, puddybear.”
“I just… I miss him, peanut butter. It’s been almost a year and…”
“I know,” she said with a whisper. “But at least you know he’s thinking about you, too. And he probably went through hell to get us our presents.”
Chris was silent for a moment before chuckling weakly. “How much you wanna bet he got me an Endbringer leg?”
“Holy shit. If it were anyone else…” Karen’s face twisted into a grin as she gave him a squeeze. “C’mon. Let’s see what everyone got.”
He gave her slight grin before kissing her nose and leading the way back out. Thank fucking god. She was glad he was seeing reason, but…
It was weird. She wasn’t used to a loving family like this. She wasn’t used to people like Tim and Tabby who would accept someone like her into their lives so readily and completely. With the age gap between them, her parents would have flipped. She wasn’t used to the weird way that Sarah had just taken to her, treating her like the little sister that she’d never had so completely.
If one of her brothers would have become engaged, they would have been expected to have their own place pretty much immediately if they hadn’t already. She would have been expected to be married by nineteen. It was surprisingly serious business for them.
Tim and Tabby didn’t care if they never moved out. They might have their own problems — Gold Morning weighed heavily on them, and sometimes they tended to take to drink harder than was healthy, but she couldn’t blame them. Survivor’s guilt was a hell of a thing, and there were far too many people who suffered like they did. Chris said that they’d get blitzed every couple of days, but now it was once a month, or every other week if it was a rough time (which it had been ever since New Fairfax had been slaughtered). But they were still good people who honestly tried to have a loving household, and tried to be supportive of their children in every way they could.
The two were already in the living room, boxes in their laps and sleep in their eyes. They weren’t pleased to have been woken up like that, but they were managing to try and look pleased. Well, okay, Tim looked completely pleased under his bushy red beard, while Tabby looked like she was going to pass out against his arm, her black hair wild and everywhere. It was oddly sweet.
Sarah smiled as Chris and Karen came in. “You two ready?”
Chris nodded, that light of excitement coming back to his eyes. “Why don’t Mom and Dad open theirs first?”
Tim’s pleased look faded. “Aw, well, why don’t you kids go?”
“What?” Chris asked, bewildered. “We’ve always done it with you opening our presents first. This shouldn’t be any different.”
The two shared a bleary look before looking at the boxes in their hands. There wouldn’t be any arguing with Chris on this, and Sarah would probably join his side. If they looked to Karen for support, she’d have to go with the guy who could practically breathe out his ears. They were doomed and they knew it.
With slow, annoying purpose, they began unwrapping. Despite being barely awake, Tabby was the first to get hers open, her eyes going wide as soon as the lid came off the box. “Oh…” Those wide eyes began to water as her hand went to her mouth. “Oh, Jordan… How the hell?”
“What is it?” Sarah asked, suddenly excited. This was going to be better than the bottle of alcohol, but what it was…
Tabby pulled out, of all things, a newspaper, showing off the image of a woman her own age. It took a moment for Karen to be able to read the headline.
Director Elizabeth Leblanc Discusses Behemoth’s Death
And What It Means for Local PRT Activities
“That’s Grandma?” Sarah asked excitedly, leaning forward from her seat on the floor.
Tabby nodded wordlessly, only finding her voice when she looked down again. “There’s more here… I…” She paused to wipe her nose before quickly folding up the aged newspaper as Tim positively beamed. “Later. Later. I’m not going to cry on these. I won’t.”
Karen couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as she watched Tabby try and regain control. There were worn pictures of Tim’s family in the living room, but none of Tabby’s. She didn’t really get the emphasis on pictures to people from before Gold Morning, but she understood that it was there and strong as hell. This must have been… so powerful for her.
Tim got his package open at last, laughing deep and from the belly as he pulled out a stack of DVDs. “How’d he know I liked wrestling?”
Sarah laughed. “We all know, Pops. We’ve been trying to find some of those for you for years, but… It’s real scattershot what you can get. Whenever Jordan saw that someone had DVDs for sale, he’d go digging through them, hoping to find something for you.”
“I’ll be damned,” he said with a wide grin. “Good show.”
“You next,” Tabby said, waving her hand and trying to keep from crying again. The fact that she hadn’t actually closed the box yet was something that Karen had noticed.
Sarah gently tossed a box to Karen with a wry grin. “We’ll go at the same time.” Karen flashed her a confused look, and that grin only grew. “He’s predictable as hell when it comes to this sorta thing. Come on, trust me.”
Which meant destroying the wrapping paper with how quickly Sarah tore open her gifts. Karen didn’t like that — it was shiny and pretty!
It said something about the world that she was fucking the richest man in town, a man who could be considered wealthy even in New Brockton, and yet to all of them the wrapping paper seemed extravagant. Nobody in the room had the mentality of a rich person, but she could see all of them gifting each other something with paper like that. Next year, this might seem normal, but as she ripped open the gift, she still felt a pang of guilt.
The thin cardboard box was opened, making Karen gasp. A white dress greeted her, with lace that looked like it was made of silver. She couldn’t even begin to wrap her mind around it. “How…?”
“Pretty things?” Chris asked with a grin.
“Pretty things.” Karen looked up to see Sarah holding up a similar dress, only hers was red. “He’s so damn predictable.”
Karen’s lips pursed. “I… I remember him getting Amy a music box, and saying something like that. I thought it was because he, uh, he secretly had a thing for her.”
Sarah cackled. “Oh, hell naw.”
“He used to pester me about my dress size,” Tabby said warmly. “When he’d come home, he’d have a beautiful dress for me, saying that whole pretty girls thing. Honestly, it weirded me out at the time, but I miss it. I don’t know how he could get them made with how much we gave him for spending money.”
“He couldn’t,” Chris said, grinning. “It’s a trick, though. You’re short enough to fit in some of the same clothes as the girls back at the Orphanage. After a formal dance, there’d always be a market for girls looking to make a few extra bucks by selling their dresses.”
Tabby looked confused, so Sarah jumped in, a hint of pride in her voice. “All guys get suits and girls get dresses for free. Ever wonder why the Orphanage produces the best seamstresses and tailors out there?”
Tabby shook her head. “Where did he get that line anyway?”
“Dunno,” Sarah said, shrugging her shoulder. “Probably, he overheard someone saying it in passing and took it as law. He was good at that.”
Chris laughed. “Right after I joined the two of them, you have no idea how often I’d say something and Sis would glare at me.”
Sarah laughed. “You never knew when he’d latch onto something and take off with it!”
“I never learned that,” Tim said with a grin. “I once mentioned sneaking in cigarettes back when I was sixteen. Once! I was drunk at a party we were hosting, and Jordan was inside, doing his own thing. Years later, he tells me that he was worried about me because I’d smoked a pack a week over twenty years ago.”
“That sounds like him,” Chris said with a wry grin.
“Come on!” Sarah said, putting her dress back. “I can try mine on later. I wanna see what he got you!”
Karen was more than glad to put hers away. As much as she liked it, it was also a little much. Whenever they actually decided to tie the knot, she might just wear this instead of a traditional bridal dress. If Chris would allow it. Knowing how he viewed Jordan, he might, but she wasn’t sure.
Chris settled on the floor as he got to work carefully opening the paper. Karen had learned that all the kids had sat on the floor during Christmas while the adults had taken the chairs. Last year, their parents tried to convince Sarah and Chris that it was alright to sit in chairs, but they hadn’t stood for it. It was strangely endearing.
When the package finally opened, Chris frowned, carefully pulling out what looked like a weirdly shaped rock mounted on a base. It wasn’t until he turned it to get a better look that what was special about it became clear: the rock somehow both moved and stayed perfectly still at the same time.
“What the hell?” Tim asked, leaning forward.
But Chris… Oh, these moments were so cool. He was getting that look to him. His power was speaking to him. “It’s a room-temperature supersolid held in a stable form. It didn’t move when I lifted it out of the box because it’s mounted, but the mounting isn’t enough to keep it from rotating. I…”
“Do you want me to get the recorder?” Karen asked.
He shook his head a little. “No, I’m good. It’s going to stick. But…” He carefully held the base in one hand and touched the rock with the other before rotating it again. “Yeah, I can’t even begin to describe what this feels like. It’s both moving and not. I know that the base is somehow… I dunno, I wanna say hydrophobic, but that’s not right. But I know that if it wasn’t mounted on it, the rock would try and flow over my hand. It’s weird.”
“But it’s giving you something?” Tabby asked carefully.
“Oh yeah. I know how to make something like this, how to integrate it into weapons, possibly. My power isn’t telling me that it’ll work perfectly… I, uh, I get the feeling that it’ll take some fiddling to get it to work right, but… Yeah. Yeah, I think that I can work with this. Actually, I get the feeling that I can come up with a lot from this.”
“Leave it to Jordan,” Tim said with a chuckle. “Gives us nice things, and gives you something to give you more work.”
“Are you kidding me?” Chris said with a grin. “That’s the best kind of gift!”
Sara leaned over, grabbing two more gifts for Tim and Tabby — Chris’, by the terrible wrapping job. Karen couldn’t help but grin to herself. Maybe things had started off badly, but… Today wasn’t turning out half bad at this rate. Hopefully, the rest of the day would go just as well…
“I take it that the operation went well?”
“Yes, sir. They just left.”
“And the men?”
“Performed… admirably enough for people who aren’t trained for this sort of operation. As a thank you, I woke up early and made them breakfast. Some weren’t enthusiastic going into it, but my the time he showed up, they had already gotten into it. When everyone around them is excited, people tend to get drawn in when they otherwise wouldn’t.”
“And he performed as expected?”
“Not initially, sir, no. But we were able to get him into the swing of things soon enough. Telling stories, goofing off. It took me a while to get a nice long clip, but I was able to do it.”
“And the siblings?”
“As expected, sir. Tears from both of them, but in the right way.”
“Excellent. What’s your take?”
“Hmm. I can’t say for sure on Miss Abrams, but Mr. Abrams was very receptive. I think that we’ll see a general decrease in stress for a little bit. More trust and willingness to work with us, for sure, but I doubt that it will get us any better prices. His fiancé governs that these days, and we still aren’t sure as to how to influence her the best yet.”
“That’s fine. The deal that she cut us on the water filter screens is good enough. We’ve outfitted six villages so far, and have plans for another ten by March. Not having to worry about people getting sick from the water will advance those villages by a wide margin. I think that we can work on her good side — I’ll swing by in a few weeks to deal with her directly.”
“You sound like you have a question.”
“…Why did you want me to contact you as soon as the operation was complete?”
“That’s complicated, but… Jordan needed to understand that we weren’t enemies. I trust that you impressed that on him?”
“As best I could.”
“Good. If push comes to shove, him knowing that he can turn to us is important. We also would prefer to know that we can rely on him if we get into trouble when he’s in our vicinity.
“This whole thing with Jordan has also put incredible strain on Mr. Abrams. He leaned heavily on Jordan for mental stability and to help come up with ideas for his work. Without him, I’ve been worried that Mr. Abrams might experience a slowdown of production, if not a full stoppage.
“Lastly, I wanted the troops that we posted there to deal with him personally. I wanted them to see and deal with Jordan. To be able to identify him quickly and come to his aid should he appear in defense of his family.”
“Are you expecting trouble, sir?”
“Unfortunately, yes. According to intelligence, The Machine has it in for Jordan now. The woman that he injured so badly when they attacked him appears to have been close to one of the leaders higher up their chain of command, though we’re still unsure of the details. We’re worried that they might turn to Mr. Abrams in order to secure their revenge.”
“The Machine aren’t a serious threat, sir. Simple thugs.”
“Intelligence indicates that they may have ties to Teacher.”
“May I ask where this intelligence comes from?”
“That’s fair. Are you expecting them to ask Teacher for help?”
“No, thankfully. They have too much pride for that. However, should they capture Mr. Abrams and he proves unwilling to submit to them, it isn’t inconceivable that they’d hand him over to Teacher in exchange for something. It’s not a huge risk; as you said, they’re thugs and we should be able to handle them, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.
“There is one other reason why I wanted this op, though.”
“How did it feel to play Santa?”
“…Good, sir. Really good. And I know a few of our people got misty eyed as Mr. Abrams thanked them.”
“I know how much it sucks to work on Christmas. The least that I could do was spread some holiday cheer to the troops.”
“Thank you sir. It’s appreciated. I’ll let you get back to your family.”
“Thank you. Merry Christmas, Lieutenant.”
“Merry Christmas, Commander.”