That mild ache from a shorter than even average night of heavy dreaming greeted me. I hated to admit it, but there was a part of me that wanted to stay curled up in bed. Work felt like a bad word right now. Grabbing another four to six hours of sleep sounded absolutely heavenly. A part of me felt like I’d earned that.
That same part, ironically enough, was the part of me that said that I’d spent way too many days curled up in bed sobbing while the others did my job for me. And it was right. Just because I’d been up too late talking with the Dragon’s Teeth didn’t mean that I could take it out everyone else. With a sigh, I opened my eyes, looking directly into another pair of brown eyes attached to a body that was surprisingly close to mine.
With a yelp I fell out of bed, a familiar laugh filling the bedroom. As I identified it, I pulled myself off the floor. “Damnit, John! What the hell?”
“Oh god, that was priceless!” I poked him angrily in the side, and he just squealed louder. “Oh, I snuck in and you didn’t wake up, then I decided to give it a go and you didn’t wake up and I knew that I just had to wait because it would be wonderful!”
I started to poke him more, leaving him a laughing, writhing mass in my bed until the door opened.
“Children,” Kathy said flatly as she wandered inside, a large bag over one shoulder. “Behave.”
“Are we killing John?” Emi asked, leading a barely awake Brenda inside. “Because I’m down for that.”
I looked between them as the door closed. “Someone wanna tell me what the hell’s going on here?”
“Ho, ho, ho,” Kathy said with a wry grin. “Time to rise and shine, big boy. It’s Christmas!”
They were here for the gift exchange. Brilliant. I yawned, tears running down my face. “Alright, two ticks.” I sniffled and blinked what little sleep was still in my eyes out, no thanks to John’s little trick. A deep breath, another yawn, wipe at my face, and I was good to go. “Right, how’re we doing this?”
Kathy put the heavy bag on my bed, grinning from ear to ear. “Okay, John.” She handed an envelope to him. “Brenda.” The youngest member of our group opened her tired eyes barely enough to take the wrapped package and clutch it to her chest. Expensive wrapping paper! “Emi.”
She snatched the package out of Kathy’s hands, quickly shaking it next to her ear.
John laughed as he swung his legs off my bed. “You’re just gonna open it in a minute.”
“It’s the principle,” Emi said with an indignant hmph.
“And Jordan!” I took huge wrapped box, suddenly feeling self-conscious as I realized that everyone had fancy wrapping and I’d just used butcher paper.
“On the count of three,” John said as Kathy fished out her box. “Three.” As the others lurched into a frenzy, paper being torn and thrown to the side like they were wildlings dismembering a body, I reached for my blade and carefully began to dissect my wrapping paper. They’d even popped for tape!
“Leather-bound complete Mark Twain collection waiting for me? Oh, Brenda! Thank you, thank you! It’s been ages since I’ve read any of his stuff! I can’t wait to pick it up!”
“Oh, this shawl is so cute! I’m going to wear it at work!”
“Oooh, pretty gun!”
That made my head snap up, looking at Emi. There she was, holding what looked like a modified LAR Grizzly in her hands. It looked chromed, and the grips looked pearlescent, with some sort of design etched into it that I couldn’t see from here. I didn’t have a problem with those, but I did have three concerns:
First, the gun was awfully big and heavy for her. I worried about how well she’d be able to handle it. Second, the .45 Winchester rounds that the stock model took were insanely hard to get; the one time that I’d gotten to fire one, I’d only gotten to shoot four rounds and had to personally police the brass. If it wasn’t modified to fire .45 ACP rounds, she might not get to use it at all. What was the point of owning a gun that you were never going to use?
Lastly, as she looked over the weapon, she kept pointing it at John.
I reached out quickly, carefully putting my hand on top of it and guiding her into lowering it. “Careful.” It didn’t have a magazine in it, but it was better to be careful than assume that there wasn’t a round chambered.
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s a beautiful weapon.” I supposed; too much flash for me, on top of my other concerns. “Just… safety first is all.”
“Jordan!” I looked at Kathy, who was holding up a card so that I could read it. Seriously, a box that big for only a card?
As I read it, though, I could understand her excitement. “*Fifty* Orphanage sodas?! Fuck. Yeah!”
“I’ll share some with you,” she said, pleased with herself.
“Better share some with the rest of us,” Brenda said as she threw the shawl over her shoulders. It was a strange, shiny blue and green hand-knit thing that was pretty. No doubt it was Emi’s gift.
“We’ll see.” Kathy was far too pleased. Good.
“Come on, muscleman,” John groused. “Get that open already! Just tear!”
“But it’s the prettiest paper I’ve ever had…” I did get a little more careless with my cuts, at least. Free of the wrapping, I opened the box and moved the tissue paper.
“Huh.” Blue-green cloth greeted me. I carefully pulled out a weird-looking set of robes. No, it was more than just robes. Hooded robes and a matching hooded cloak, matching well enough that they’d probably appear to be one and the same. The robes themselves looked like they’d be tight against my body, too. I was about to comment on it when I realized something in the sleeves.
“They light up,” Emi said smugly. “Well, more of glow. There’s a lot of glowy going on there, believe me.”
“It took us a long time to figure that one out.” John was virtually sprawling on my bed, a vulpine grin on his face.
“There’s more in there,” Kathy said quickly, barely able to contain her excitement. “C’mon, look, look!”
More tissue paper was moved, revealing a mask resting on top of tactical gear of some sort.
“The mask will attach to your helmet,” Kathy explained.
“I designed the robes and stuff to fit over your armor,” Emi explained. “We wanted you to be completely gussied up while wearing it, y’know, so that you don’t have to worry.”
“There’s more,” John said, grinning from ear to ear. “This is pretty much our one big gift from all of us to you.”
“There’s more,” Kathy said smugly, earning a glare from John. “Hey, it’s Christmas. It’s not my fault that you only got one thing for him.”
I pulled out a metal tube attached to a glove, fitted with straps, and with springs and stuff. Emi opened her mouth to speak, but I was already pulling it on, strapping it down. It took me three tries before the tube slid into my hand, a trigger right under my thumb.
“There’s even more in there,” John said, more calmly this time. “Why don’t we wait on that, though — you can play with it all later. We had a conversation once about how you would make a pretty awesome wizard, with all sorts of tricks up your wizard’s sleeves to back it up. Since you aren’t the biggest on partying or whatever, it gave the rest of us a chance to talk and come up with stuff.”
Emi nodded. “As soon as you got that sewing machine at the safehouse, I got to work. Getting the lights from Twain was the hard part. We relied pretty heavily on Fee-Fee and Habbie for the rest.”
Brenda smirked at the names.
I chuckled weakly. “Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone. I’ll be honest, I’m probably going to spend a week playing with all of this. You’re all going to have to put up with me doing a lot of posing — I’ve focused on warrior posing, not, uh… Not wizard posing. I…”
“You’re a giant nerd,” Brenda said with a blind grin.
“I won’t deny it.” I smiled a hair, ducking my head. After a moment, though, my nervousness kicked into high gear, my hands alternatingly clutching at empty air. “Uh, can… Can we do mine next? You all wrapped yours so pretty, and I don’t want mine to be last.”
Kathy’s smile was soft and warm. “Of course. It’s not a problem in the slightest.”
As I knelt to pull out presents from under the bed, John chuckled a little. “Spartan. I like it. I’d accuse you of being like that, but by your armor and how you move, I know better. Besides, Kathy was like that when I first met her. She got better quick, though.”
“I hear it’s better these days,” she said. “All of us old timers from the Orphanage got used to not having a lot for quite a few years. Until the ball really got rolling and supplies were coming in, there just wasn’t enough to go around. Too many kids, not enough pretty. If we wanted something nice, we had to make it ourselves. Fortunately, the Matron was all for getting us art supplies.”
“Charcoal,” I said absently as I set another present on the bed, and she laughed.
“So many charcoal artists, yeah! They still have, like, three of them I hear.”
John nodded as I got out the last one and stood back up. “There was an old joke that if you wanted a good artist, go to the Orphanage. It’s true, too — most of the recent people who actually have names for themselves either live there or grew up there.”
I handed John’s package to him, waiting expectantly, and Emi pouted. “Not all at once?”
Kathy smiled patiently again. “He wants to see our reactions, dear. Be patient.”
John pulled off the string and peeled back the paper, looking curiously. After a moment, he moved the small bundle of papers to the side and opened the package within, sniffing at it. Only then did his face break into a wide grin. “Is this… Is this tobacco Turkish blend?”
“It is!” I grinned widely. Whew, I wasn’t sure if he’d realize it or not.
John laughed. “This stuff’s hard to get, and expensive! And it’s fresh, too, not stale! I haven’t had a cigarette with stuff this good since… Well, since a few months after GM. These days, the good stuff that I get is usually stale as shit. These are good papers too, aren’t they?”
I chuckled. “Two full coins, so they’d better be.”
“Hot damn!” John laughed. “I’m quarter tempted to run outside right now, but I wanna see what everyone else got.”
Good. I figured that he’d probably started smoking before Gold Morning. Maybe this would give him some good memories. He was infuriatingly hard to buy for — anything that he needed, he bought for himself, and other than reading classic literature and partying, he didn’t show many interests. He’d been the hardest person to buy for.
Despite Emi practically squirming to get her mitts on her present, she showed the restraint to hand Brenda the package with her name on it. Rather than untie the knot, Brenda snapped the string with a single yank and quickly tore the paper off. She opened her eyes as she opened the box, pulling out a single ring and the card inside. “Is this amber?”
“No, it’s actually a crystal made from a para power, so it’s a lot stronger than amber. It should last longer than the gold, I think.”
She nodded as she glanced at the card for all of three seconds before squeezing past Emi and Kathy to hug me tight. “Thank you,” she whispered softly.
The ring was just a pretty thing. She didn’t have any jewelry, and she deserved some. Instead, the real present had been a weekend of her choosing during the summer, to the location of her choosing, just the two of us in the wilderness. No other paras around to make suppressing her powers harder, so that she could just enjoy being her for a bit. No blindfold, no stumbling. I’d do all the cooking, and she could just do whatever she wanted.
As she pulled away, her eyes closed, she wiped a tear from her face and waved her hand to everyone else. “Go, go. Open something, dang it!”
Emi’s package was by far the largest, and she had to slide it towards her. Much like Brenda, she shredded both the string and the plain brown paper, virtually tearing the thin box open, only for her eyes to widen. “Oh my fuck, is this silk?”
I straightened, beaming. “It is!”
“And the pattern–”
“We spent almost a month hunting for it. That design is used in classic Japanese kimonos.”
“And a whole bolt of it!” She squealed, then paused. “Oh my god!” Emi held up the necklace, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s beautiful!”
Not… really? There wasn’t much to it, since she’d once told me that she wasn’t a gemstone kind of girl. It was a simple gold chain with a weird design on it for the hangy thing that I thought she’d like. Still, I smiled warmly at her. “I’m glad you like it.”
“My turn!” It was funny to see Kathy so excited. Even when she was upset, she seemed calm, but Christmas… Well, it wasn’t a surprise, I supposed. Her package wasn’t any bigger than Brenda’s, and she opened it with abandon. Like Brenda, she ignored the card for the bauble inside.
“Jordan, these had better not be real–”
“They’re diamonds,” I confirmed, my lips quirking upwards.
She giggled with delight as she held the earrings up to her ear, showing them off for everyone. I would have gotten them all earrings, but she was the only one with pierced ears. I had no idea what I’d get her next year.
Kathy remembered the card, barely containing her glee as she set the earrings down and picked it up, reading it out loud. “‘Kathy. You’ve been a glue for all of us, speaking plainly, but also being the voice of gentle reason. When we hurt, you’re the one who appears to soothe us. I wish that I had known you back in the Orphanage, had been able to step in and prevent whatever situation that made you trigger.’ Because of course you would, Jordan.
“‘I have little to offer you. You deserve so much better than what any of us can offer. I can’t turn back time and save your mother’s life, or even find a picture of her. What I can do, however, is to make sure that…'” She paused, her eyes welling. “‘Make sure that you never forget what anyone looks like again. When we get back, I’ve arranged for the five of us to have our picture taken together. I…'”
Kathy put the card over her mouth as she looked at me for a moment, and Brenda barely lunged out of the way before I she slammed into me. Geeze, people were huggy this year. I wasn’t complaining in the slightest.
“Big–” She hiccupped. “–dork.”
I was positively beaming. This was a good Christmas, and the bag of presents wasn’t nearly close to empty yet. I couldn’t wait to see what everyone else had gotten everybody!
“No, actually. It was the Siberian.”
That made Kathy perk up. “Seriously? Jack wasn’t the one who did it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t remember for sure, but I’m, like, 80 percent sure that the Siberian wasn’t even one of the Slaughterhouse Nine at that point. Heck, I’m willing to bet that it was that incident that caused Jack to recruit her.”
“So what happened?” Emi asked, getting drawn into the conversation now.
“Well, they had her cornered, or so they thought. They all charged in, and she literally tore through them. They didn’t even stand a chance — she literally tore Hero in half.”
“I always wondered why Eidolon didn’t save him,” John said thoughtfully.
“He tried, or so I’m told. I think that either he didn’t get a power that could heal, or it took too long to spin up. His powers weren’t instant and took a bit to hit full strength. Hero wasn’t the only one who got it in that fight, though; it’s the same fight where Alexandria lost her eye. And then the Siberian just literally walked through all the PRT troops that were there to back the four up. When I say she was unstoppable, I mean it. I have no idea how Dragon killed her, but it was all over the news.”
Brenda coughed softly, earning Emi’s attention for a brief moment before she turned it back to me. “Hey, bro. Break time for ya, while we still have the chance.”
I sighed softly. We were finally talking about something that I found interesting for once. The conversations that we had usually went in one ear and out the other, but this was the sort of thing that I could talk about all day. Still, I was tired and could use a bite to eat and a nap.
“Aright,” I said, stepping away from the noodles that I’d been cutting and pulling off my apron. I paused next to Emi, setting a fist on her shoulder. “You need anything…”
“I’ll holler,” she said warmly. “Hey, go have a seat. Sasha owes me a favor, so I got your meal lined up already.”
I could have argued — I didn’t want her wasting a favor on me. She was just as stubborn as me, and she’d been extra nice these past five or six days, ever since she’d gotten her silk. This time, though, I kept my mouth shut as I walked into the dining area. Maybe this would finally get her to relax a bit. Besides, since last night was New Year’s, the day had been fairly quiet. They’d survive without me for a bit.
I settled at an unoccupied table, closing my eyes and tilting my head back. I could just about relax. Not entirely, though; I didn’t want to fall asleep.
It was a few moments before I heard my meal being set down on the table in front of me. “Tha–”
A huge chorus of voices interrupted me. “Happy birthday!”
My eyes snapped open to find a hell of a meal, including steak and twice baked potatoes, sitting in front of me. Along with a cake. And… something to drink, I wasn’t sure what.
Whiskey tango foxtrot.
My expression must have been plain on my face, as one man in his forties stepped forward. “You dove in to save folks from those wildlings without pause, and it gave you one hell of a time. We know that you’ve been struggling since then, but you and your friends went way out of your way to gussy up the town for Christmas, and let us keep the lights. Since your sister let it slip that your birthday was today, we thought that we’d pay you back in our own way. It’s the least we can do for everything that you’ve done.”
My eyes flicked to Emi. How the hell did she know? Kathy. Kathy knew that we celebrated my birthday on the first of the year. No, they hadn’t let it slip. They’d planned to let folks know, so that they could celebrate my birthday without having to do it themselves.
I put a smile on my face, though, as I drew my attention back to the man. I even threw in a laugh for good measure. “Thank you, very much! You have no idea what this means to me!” I could play it up for the town. Make it seem like I was happy for the special treatment for their sakes. I could tolerate a meal for them, at least.
As a chorus of happy birthday started, people began to push through carrying packages. Fuck me.
If there was a kind and loving God who ruled over the universe, he’d pluck me from this mortal coil right now. Unfortunately, there were reasons why I wasn’t religious.
I sat, my feet curled up beneath my seat, my head leaned against Mom’s shoulder so that I could see out the window. I watched as the landscape tore by, an expression of wonder on my face. I’d never get used to these displays.
“I’ll never get tired of this,” I said lazily.
“Mmm. You’ve loved this line ever since you were five. You used to just watch out the window, as excited as you could be. Now, you look like you’re going to pass out.”
I flicked my eyes up at her, then back out. “Big day.”
“A very big day,” she agreed.
“Finally heading back into the main swing of things. Angel Grove’s been a great place to lay low, but it’s time to go. I gotta admit, I’m scared.”
She smiled a little and ran a lock of her red hair behind her ear. “I’d be worried if you weren’t. Here, other than the lies, you can relax and be… mostly yourself. You can work hard, train hard as the time allows it, and just be you. Out there? That’s where things are hard.”
We rode in silence, me just staring out the window. Out there, I couldn’t just sit by, but here? Like this? I could at least relax in motion. It was strangely comfortable like this. Especially when she spoke truths like that.
“Chicago sure was beautiful.”
Mom chuckled softly. “More than you’ll ever know.”
I finished fitting everything into my pack that I could. Everything that had to stay with me as I traveled, while everything else got put with the extra luggage. It wasn’t easy, and I had to make room for some stuff, and throw others out.
The Dragon’s Teeth had given me new medical supplies, three full kids, plus more sealant. That was actually a really good thing — most of my own medkit had expired, and I really didn’t want to push my luck with the sealant after it expired. Who knew what it would do?
It also let me clear out other things that I didn’t need. Sometimes, I tucked things into my pack temporarily, only for them stay there until I cleared stuff out. Some aged, worn pages of thick paper that were folded in half; a leather package with something in it… that sort of thing. As there was a knock on my door, I collected it all up. “Come in.”
“You good?” Emi asked as she came in. “John’s getting antsy.”
“Yep.” I dumped it all into the trash unceremoniously. “I think I can get everything in one trip.” My back was gonna hurt from it, but that was fine.
“Cool.” Emi glanced around. “Uh, hey. You mind if I take a look around and make sure that you didn’t forget anything while you take it down? Not your trash or something, but I don’t think you want a fire ball or something to be left behind and end up hurting someone.”
“I already swept but… Yeah, good thinking. I’ll see you at the wagon.” I nodded to her as I went through the effort of collecting up my pack and both duffel bags, carrying downstairs. Even with how much money I’d spent for Christmas, there was still enough coin to weigh me down.
As I made it outside, Kathy was talking to someone, while John and Brenda were lounging on the wagon with everyone else’s stuff and all the stuff that Angel Grove was shipping out. I had to work to get all of my stuff on. “Everything good?”
“Rooms are all paid for, yeah.” John flashed me a grin. “You ready to get back to work?”
“I am, surprisingly. I didn’t mind the downtime, but… Honestly, it isn’t something that I’d like to do forever. I’m looking forwards to diving back into things again.”
“So’m I,” Brenda said with an impish grin.
I looked to John as he finished rolling a cigarette. I’d gotten him a ton of tobacco, but he was running low of what I’d gotten him for Christmas, and it was only March first. No self-restraint. “What’s the plan?”
“We’ll swing by Fenix’s, get the intel that I asked him to pick up, settle our living situation there, then decide on what we’ll do.”
After a few minutes, Emi came out, a bag in her hands. That made me frown a bit. “Did I forget something?”
“Huh?” She paused, then looked down at the bag, then back to me. “Uh. N-no. I mean, nah. This was, uh… This was just something that I had them hold onto at the desk for me. You know, spare pads, just in case I forgot to pick some up and needed ’em.”
I nodded. “Smart thinking.”
She let out a breath before smiling at me and hopping on the wagon.
John grinned at us as he lit up — he wouldn’t have a chance on the ship, so he was probably getting it out of the way now. “I’m telling you all. This is going to be a good year. Neither heaven nor earth can stop us now.”
Despite the sinking sensation in my gut that he’d just tempted fate, I sure hoped so.